The Poetry of Sam Friedman

Samuel R. Friedman, Ph.D. (sociology) is a Senior Research Fellow and the Director of the Social Theory Core in the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research at National Development and Research Institutes, Inc., New York City. (He is also a prior Director of the Research Methods Core in the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research.) Other appointments include Senior Research Associate at the Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Friedman is an author of over 300 publications on HIV, STI, and drug use epidemiology and prevention. Recent research projects have included a focus on social factors and social networks among drug injectors and youth and on socioeconomic and policy predictors of the extent of injection drug use, of HIV epidemics, and of HIV prevention efforts in US metropolitan areas; research on the impact of economic and political crises on HIV risk in Buenos Aires; and research on why women injectors who have sex with women are at enhanced risk for HIV and other infections.

He has engaged in many international collaborative projects with the WHO MultiCentre Study of Drugs and HIV and with researchers in Brazil, Spain, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and other countries. He has also written on international HIV topics such as war and HIV; sociopolitical transitions and HIV; and drug users’ organizations (user groups) as actors globally against HIV. He is a published poet who often presents readings at conferences on HIV/AIDS and/or on preventing drug-related harm.
This is Sam’s official biography. It doesn’t begin to reflect the Sam the man. Sam is a beloved and respected friend to drug users around the world. No HIV/AIDS or Harm Reduction conference is complete without Sam’s presenting valuable new research, reading new poems, and sharing his vast knowledge and wisdom about social and political activism with his many friends.

– Walter Cavalieri

The Canadian Harm Reduction Network
Some of these poems come from small booklets that have been published in order to raise money for syringe exchanges in the USA that are unfunded and embattled. PLEASE think about buying copies of these books to help fight the diseases that attack users.

Sam Friedman

Orders can be made through
North American Syringe Exchange Network
535 Dock Street #112 Tacoma, WA 98402
phone 253-272-4857; fax 253-272-8415
Please order a bundle for distribution in the field.
Price is $10 unless otherwise specified.

AIDS Researchers at Work and Play

Sam Friedman

As antediluvian AIDS researchers
write homilies of thanksgiving
for the lifesaving virtues and rubber flexibility
of latex condoms,
our aged libidos rest unflexed, unlubricated,
and utterly devoid of lust or any
non-statistical emotion.

In the cubicles outside our offices,
young analysts and intervention agents
meet, lust,
perhaps even perspire
to tides of love.
In their evening trysts and in wake-up quickies
after the alarm blares its notice of waiting work
and screaming subways,
their libidos flex and their bodies lubricate, scream and quake
as they smile their joy at finding partners against despair,
partners who know all about AIDS
so they need not even think about condoms
outside of work.
Somewhere inside them,
their smiles, contentment and orgasmic shudders are reflected
in the twisted contours
of a happy

Red River Review May 2003, p. 22.

AIDS, from then 'til now

Sam Friedman

Discovered in an era
when the rich sought more, more, ever more,
by renouncing all loyalties,
attacking all solidarities,
extolling the individual
whilst attacking most women, most men;

spreading amok in an era
when politicians swooped collectively
to deny all collectivity,
all human connectivity,
in the lonely '80s,
in the fraying '90s,
as our loved ones sickened,
as our loved ones died.
Marty, Nico and Yolanda,
John and Rod and millions besides
all sickened,
all died,
all died denied,
all died despised,
vilified by lies
by those on high,
though we disproved the lies
by our cries as they died,
by the ways we defied
the lies from on high,
by the love that we built
among the despised,
by the connections we found,
by the collectives we strived for.

We must hew out new loyalties,
etch collective esteem
through the struggles we build,
by the love that we'll wield,
amongst le damnee de la Terre,
amongst the damned of all lands,
as we connect all in love
who defy all the lies,
as we battle these parasites
who live off our lives.
Earlier version was in AIDS Care

Eternal vigilance

Sam Friedman

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." -- Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), abolitionist, orator and columnist for The Liberator, in a speech before the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in 1852.

On a globe run by bean-counters
on behalf of profits,
where all disease prevention
is a crime,
the crime of theft
against the sales of pharmaceuticals,
eternal vigilance is the price of
Needle exchange, education, A.R.T.,
users' groups,
face eternal siege,
and loathing.
They cost taxation,
encourage illicit enjoyment,
prevent socially salutary
disease, wasting, death,
and sales.
cleanse social evils,
build sales,
build profits.
Viruses are bean-counters'
best friends.
are patriotic.
Bean-counting politicians,
and bean-counting editors
are viruses'
best friends.
Eternal vigilance is the price of
until we make a healthy


Sam Friedman

The point is
was a hero,
who acted,
who put it
on the line.
Each of us knew
the risks,
had heard the stories
of gunshots, beatings,
Congressional committees,
shattered careers,
But each of us acted,
thought . . . inspired,
each was a hero,
everyone who dared.
Sure, the press covered
Martin, Stokely,
Gloria and Cesar,
and occasionally even Fannie Lou,
and these folks sure were
but so were Amy & Lois & Tom
who picketed Glen Echo with me
in the summer of '60,
and Eric and Laurie and Tom
who shared some jail time
after we demo'd a draft board
the first time ever in sixty-five,
and so were millions of others
no one ever hears of anymore
because the press and the politicians
and the employers
just don't want us to know
we can all be heroes-
just pick up a sign
and march or vigil,
or start a needle exchange,
sit in,
or strike,
and take away their power
so our time and bodies
can be

Holy NASEC, April 28, 2001

Sam Friedman

As the band played,
and the needle exchangers danced
to the songs in the Bravo
of Minneapolis,
a spirit of holy pervaded the tables
and the smiles of the chatterers,
the maturity of a movement grown holy
through the pains of our errors,
through losing many friends to the virus,
some deaths due to our errors,
some caused by our love,
but many prevented,
many prevented,
more and more, many prevented,
our errors transcended
through arguments extended
to respect and deep friendship
so we chat and we party,
a roomful of doers,
of queers, straights and junkies,
a roomful of saints transcendent and holy,
purveyors of points despite the fangs of the powers,
purveyors of needles through decades of plagues.
Big Hammer, in press.

NASEC 2005

Sam Friedman

We have grown old
over two decades
fighting hatred for life,
fighting virus with the needles
that show we care.
The young firebrands of the late '80s
grow paunches,
abandon day jobs or the streets
for careers,
and talk about the problems
of their teenage kids.
Dave and Walter age gracefully before me,
while I lose hair and gain wrinkles
that testify to I-don't-know-what.
Many have died, died from virus,
died from the loneliness and hatred
that a country driven by profits
in its war of all against all.
Others have died from shots gone wrong,
drugs that drag desire through the doorway to nil.

We have grown old, we survivors,
though still we rage
as prophets of never-gone by-gone ages.
Our memories hold images
of comrades
who passed,
and of moments of joy,
joy at needles taken,
needles returned,
lives transformed.
We have grown old, we old, cantankerous ones.
We have grown gardens
of lives saved,
gardens where lost ones still live in life-loving whispers.
These gardens bloom with our remembered battles,
with memories of disagreements that blossomed
as respect and admiration.
They bloom a communion aging
into old folks, new folks,
wise folks
who treasure each others' foibles
and quietly each help the other
in moments of fear,
in crises of methadone or drugs
in short supply,
through the tenterhooks
when venerable exes lust for their points
over months of sad grief.

With thanks to Walter Cavalieri for his suggestions
*Explanatory note: NASEC is the North American Syringe Exchange Convention.

Needle Exchange 1986, 1987, . . ., 1998, . . .

Sam Friedman

Rain after rain,
snow after snow,
by the sweat on our brows
and by the sweat that makes our armpits
like the presuppositions of political discourse
and media inanity,
we hand out needles,
we hand out condoms,
we hand out love.

Life in the frozen trenches.

Life in the frozen trenches-of love.

We do not move.
We are steadfast,
we are entrenched,
we are in the trenches,
while around us
politicians dance and thrust,
businessmen engage in a war of lightning maneuver
that moves the virus around the world,
around our trenches,
around our hearts;
and in the trenches we produce
            after proof
                                  after proof
                                                      after proof
that needle exchange works
and we save thousands of lives.
BUT . . .
        around our frozen trenches,
        our tiny islets of sweat-clogged love
        in cities based on hate
the virus swims through needles and veins
in the streets where our tiny numbers cannot be,
and the deaths of thousands of "junkies"
are not mourned,
do not provoke headlines of OUTRAGE,
and jobs disappear as belts are tightened
like nooses
and the business of business is corporate
and the sun blazes down through a sky without ozone
and sweat begrimes our groins
as needles go out, and needles come back,
and our hearts melt again
and again
in the frozen trenches. Big Hammer, 4, 2001. pp. 32-33.

In SR Friedman, Needles, drugs, and defiance: Poems to organize by, North American Syringe Exchange Network: 1999.

Needle exchange demo, Trenton Statehouse, January 12, 1999

Sam Friedman

"You killed my father,"
the young woman screamed
into the microphone
as the crowd applauded her thought, her anger,
her truth,
just as they cheered the ex-user
who condemned New Jersey government
for denying needles
and starving treatment of funds,
and chanted
"Christy Whitman, you can't hide,
we charge you with

The day was warm for January,
since the weather gods had smiled
as we spoke our outrage
and the gray-uniformed cops
guarded the doors from the anger of hundreds
protesting state-sanctioned death
from the modern plague,

but in New Jersey,
it was business as usual:
two blocks away,
the governor proposed tax rebates for homeowners
to raving Republicans and Democrats
with welfare and drug treatment budgets as collateral
while Aetna was buying up health-care-for-profit,
ECCS laid off workers,
and the madness and fears of holding a job
grew more frenetic

and cops hunted junkies and the exchangers of needles
while viruses thrived like the owners of corporations
and politicians grinned before cameras
in this State denying needles,
bullish on death.
have the

For now.

In SR Friedman, Needles, drugs, and defiance: Poems to organize by, North American Syringe Exchange Network: 1999.

Outside ... In

Sam Friedman

Sitting in the lightless cavern that was my office
in the hate-ridden spring of 1987,
when "Just say No" was the mantra from above
and the message for users was "Enter treatment or die,"
with death clearly the hoped-for choice.

My employers were more humane,
they really wanted folks to enter treatment,
piss into cups every few days to prove their troth,
slurp their methadone under watchful eyes
or go through headfixing at a TC uptown, downtown, uptime, downtime.
So sorry if you get HIV, but treatment is our business,
not condoms, not bleach, and certainly not
the exchange of needles.

Sitting in my gloomy office, mulling inertia, hatred, callous systems,
hearing the phone ringing,
picking it up wondering "What is it this time?"
Another Assistant D.A. seeking quotes to distort
for the papers?
Or more work, more requests, more denunciations of the helpless?

I muttered, "Yeah . . . what is it?"
or maybe "Hello,"
heard a gentle voice, quiet steel, in return,
"Hello. This is Kathy Oliver calling,
from Portland, Oregon.
I hear you might know something
about giving drug users needles
to prevent AIDS."

My mind flashed joy like a salmon
leaping under a rainbowed sky,
or like the April sunlight in 1961 when my first Massachusetts winter
broke into icicles dripping sparkling water
that sang its way through the slush that was Cambridge sidewalks,
or like the proverbial Western movie
when the cavalry sweeps over the hill bringing salvation
(even though they really brought death, racist eviction, and even smallpox
in the American rehearsal
of the Negro removal that is modern-day AIDS).

But here was the telephone,
me beaming in my windowless office,
talking to salvation,
talking needles,
talking life.

In SR Friedman, Needles, drugs, and defiance: Poems to organize by, North American Syringe Exchange Network: 1999.

To the users of Thailand--and everywhere else

Sam Friedman

Despised, reviled,
targeted by the guns
of over-empowered cops,
sometimes . . . pitied,
you make do,
fill your veins
with liquid
or, perhaps, to forget past pain,
or to put off feeling
drug sick
Besieged by police, by AIDS,
by greed,
with needles rare
and safety unheard of,
you think,
you love,
you collaborate
and share,
share food when you can,
needles when you must.
you prey upon others,
rob your mom to get your fix,
or sell a stranger sugar
for the money for a shot.
This sets you up for power,
as prey for every het-up, killing cop,
as diversions for anger
better aimed at the top,
at those who profit, and hate, and kill . . .

Who should be the hated?

Who should be despised?