Brontez Purnell sat down with Fourteen Hills for an interview after spending a week at San Francisco State University as the Mazza Writer in residence, where he visited various zoom classes as a guest speaker and was featured in two Poetry Center events, during the week of April 5th - 9th, 2020.
This interview was conducted on April 16th, 2020, by TreVaughn Malik Roach-Carter.
Fourteen Hills: Can you talk about what sparked your book 100 Boyfriends?
Brontez Purnell: Basically, I had done this dance piece called BOMBS UBER CALIFORNIA. It was about a mental performance survey about California as a spiritual landscape. In the background of the performance I had this poem, this text, installed. After that show was over I was looking at all this poetry that I wrote for it and I was like, “oh, I kinda like this. I want to massage this into something.” So it became essentially, the prose poetry part of 100 Boyfriends. The part called “100 Boyfriends” was originally supposed to be an all poetry book that I was going to give to City Lights. But in between that I got the Whiting Award and then I started working with FSG and they say some of it. And they were like “can you turn these into stories or do you have stories to go along with this?” So it was kind of like a long and convoluted process. Essentially, it just started on the whim as another art project.
FH: Where did the film component, 100 Boyfriends Mixtape, fall into the process?
BP: 100 Boyfriends Mixtape had been a series I had been doing since 2013. Right as I was thinking of that concept, I was also doing this separate idea, essentially personal video diaries about dot dot dot, whatever. There’s been three installments so far. Of course, the material is closely related but they are different ideas all together.
FH: Are there any echoes of your own life within 100 Boyfriends?
BP: There’s echoes of everyone's life in 100 Boyfriends.
FH: I wanted to ask about a concept that I found really interesting in the book. Naming in the book is illusive and powerful. Names are forgotten, omitted, or replaced with memorable details. How’d you come to this naming and unnaming convention and what would you say it means for these characters?
BP: I think it’s just a way of charting them. I did wrestle with the idea of them all being numbers but that felt a little too clinical. Once something is given a name it's kind of a way of compartmentalizing and charting. I think it sits in those lines.
FH: Sex and pain are two constants in this book, acting as a kind of haunting fuel for the narratives. Can you talk about how you came to explore these connections?
BP: I think being a sexual active gay man, I ride the lines of both those things all the time. They are the two things that can feel the most eerily and abstractly similar. They're always riding an edge between something potentially really damaging and something potentially really exhilarating and a chance to learn more.
FH: In another interview, you mentioned how you felt like the writings that were out there weren’t really written for you. Can you talk about having that experience and how 100 Boyfriends plays a part in that?
BP: Sometimes I feel like when we write about things like romance, all of your emotions are just spoon fed to you. They’re pedantically laid out for you. Most of the things I write about, and even within myself, so much sits on this emotional tightrope that can fall in a plethora of ways at once. So, I'd like there to be things… like a narrative that kind of glitches or places where the reader has to be left to use their own judgement. It’s kind of hard when we are digging through the archeological facts of a failed relationship, and anyone claiming the narrative can say anything they want about it. Sometimes omissions present a clearer picture, in a weird way. So I always like to explore things like that. And I almost never see writing that reflects that. Like, this painting of a picture of a whole.
FH: Would you say 100 Boyfriends is in conversation with any work that has come before it, either your own or someone else?
BP: It’s almost too much to name. It’s way too much to name. It has a strong line of forefathers that are transgressively Black, but also beautifly Black, passively Black. Transgressively Queer, beautifully Queer, passively Queer. And things of that nature, I’m going to quit it right there, I could go on forever.
FH: Outside of writing, you also dance, make music, direct, and so much more. What would you say fuels your various artistic endeavors?
BP: Needing a paycheck.
FH: I think that's pretty powerful fuel, if there was any.
BP: You know, people be really afraid to say that sometimes. Folks be looking at me sideways when I answer the question like that, but it’s like, I’m working here.
FH: What drove you to make your Ed Mock documentary?
BP: I was a dancer for Amara Tabor-Smith and she was Ed’s dance daughter. So I did this public performance to Ed Mock and I thought he was just really cool, he was an amazing subject. I was going to write a book but a filmmaker friend of mine was like, “nobody reads books, just make a documentary.” So I pulled all the resources I could in my community and I got a couple grants to make that film. I thought it was pretty nice.
FH: You also have a background in zine making, do you have any advice for people looking to dive into the craft?
BP: It’s so different now because I still remember making zines when you could scam kinkos. You can’t really scam kinkos anymore. And so much stuff exists online. But I do think there is something magical about watching this physical object, that's made just because you insist that it be made, come together in your own hand. I think everyone should do it because it’s a magic spell you put on yourself. When you’re like, I am in control of my entertainment, my destiny, my fucking everything. And I really think that that’s the reward. Just feeling like you took something into your own hands. It's the ultimate reward of making a zine. And it’s so funny because sometimes I feel like I hear so much about zines these days. More so than I ever did in the 90s. And the fact that we still have to explain what they are to people, sometimes it feels a little redundant because I’ve been doing them for almost thirty years of my life. The fact that revolution is something that has to be constantly reintroduced to people too, is also the price of that ticket. But still, it's really exciting for me to still hear people talking about zines and stuff. I think everyone should do one.
FH: Are you still making zines?
BP: Yeah actually, the fifth issue of Fag School is about to come out any day now if I ever fucking type the last page of it. I’ve been meaning to type the last page of it for like a year now. And I’m on the fifth issue and I’ve been doing it for twenty years. Still gotta fucking hold onto my cred.
FH: You’ve spent a week as SFSU’s Mazza Writer in Residence, guest speaking in classes and being featured at two poetry center events. What was the most memorable class or moment from your visits?
BP: I don't know, I wanna be like a really basic bitch and just be like, I loved all those classes. I don’t really feel like I’m a guest either. I stayed in college, like, it took me sixteen years to get my undergrad degree. I’ve been in college all of my adult life. Even going back to say hi, i feel like I’m in the class there too. I just finished my graduate degree and I’m still going to go back cus I’ve been institutionalized.
FH: You chose to turn one of your readings into a Queer Writers of color round table, inviting some friends to read along side you. This felt like a really big act of love for your personal community. Can you talk a bit about how community interacts with queerness and artistry for you?
BP: Well, if you know a bunch of Queer people, ya’ll probably basically always getting into some messy ass shit. Like, we spend most of the time fighting. I can honestly say that about any Queer circle. But if you can find those points where you actually meet up for some things and actually realize the other things that y'all do and that you are a creative community together, I say go ahead and do it. So it had been a minute, but these were all friends of mine who… I’ve known these folks forever. Upwards of twenty years for some of them. All of them during quarantine handed me their poetry projects. It was so rad, I was like, “oh all my friends are still writing poetry. All right. If everyone else is still fucking going, imma still keep going.” So, yeah, it was nice to just sit there and talk to them and have a space to discuss form. Because we spend so much time bitching about the government and the world around us, we don’t ever get to sit down and talk about what we like about each other's art.
FH: Can you talk a little bit about the forming of your dance company?
BP: It was like 2008 or 2009. I had left junior college and I was studying contemporary at Cal State East Bay and decided I wanted to form a company of people who didn't really dance and see what would happen. I had been living at this warehouse and there was a bunch of space. So I started having dance classes and stuff. I thought it was really fun. It was a fun time to do that. I’m glad I did it when I did because I don't think it would happen the same way now or I dont think we would have as much space for it. But it was amazingly just a way to meet people and kick it. And that's what we did. It ran that way for close to a decade. And I still do performances here and there. But so many people have moved away and the crowd is so different now. Those large group ensembles we used to perform, we don't get to really do those anymore. But hopefully one day again.
FH: And how about your musical past? You’re making music, correct?
BP: Yeah! I’m always making music. I am a forty year old man in a Pop Punk band. It’s still fun, I joke a lot but I really love doing that.
FH: When did the group form?
BP: It started in 2003 as a bedroom demo project. Originally it was just me but over the years there's been like sixteen people that played backup for me. But the current lineup is the longest one I’ve ever had. Ezra is my longest bandmate and Sean the drummer is the longest drummer that's ever been in the band. So, I’m a family man these days.
FH: Are there any artistic crafts or genres that you are not currently involved with that you want to get into?
BP: I’d love to wrap my head around sculpture. For only the fact that I’m really really bad at it. It’s the fact that my mind can not… I don’t know how to move forward with it, I don’t know how to give myself permission to do an idea. It is a raging mystery to me. And that alone makes me want to go towards it more.
FH: You’ve talked before about Langston Hughes being an introduction into reading and writing for you. Can you talk a little bit about that?
BP: I mean, it’s just real simple. My mom was really into Black literature. So from the time was born, of course, that was the book that was on the table. But also in this other way too, I don’t think it’s that extraordinary. Langston Hughes is like, so so so deep in the American vernacular and DNA. I’m more surprised when I hear that there are Black writers who didn’t grow up with a big ass book of Langston Hughes. That Langston Hughes book was sitting around the house way more than any bible. People talk about all the gods, I feel like Langston is THE GOD of American poetry.
FH: Can you talk about the different places you’ve lived and how they’ve influenced your craft?
BP: Growing up in Alabama made me realize I should probably move someplace where I can get some dick. Being in California this long has completely ruined me as to living anywhere else in the world. But as far as craft, I think living in the Bay and being surrounded by DIY art and DIY artists who were just going to make it no matter what and being in conversation with several different communities of art at once is basically a foothold in my whole career or moment or whatever you want to call it. I was lucky to get here when I got here.
FH: If your work were a kind of food, what food would it be?
BP: I think it would be a really dope macaroon. I think it would be a really dope assorted box of macaroons. Cus it’s very delicious, you probably shouldn’t eat a whole-whole bunch of it at once, but when well placed and well timed, it is the most delicious thing you could ever think of.
FH: Are there any projects, writing or otherwise, in development that people can look forward to?
BP: Right now, I’m writing a Sci-Fi book. And we’ll see if we can get it to see the light of day next year.
FH: Can we get a sneak peak at what it's about?
BP: It’s about a family of psychics in the rural south, in the sixties, and they’re at war with one another. And it’s called The Body Writes a Book.
FH: That sounds really interesting! I definitely want to read that. I’m looking forward to it.
BP:Should be fun!
FH: Are there any final thoughts or words you’d like to give to our readers?
BP: I love you all! Email me!
Brontez Purnell is a writer, musician, dancer, filmmaker, and performance artist. Recipient of a 2018 Whiting Award for Fiction, he was named one of the 32 Black Male Writers for Our Time by The New York Times Style Magazine in 2018. Purnell is also frontman for the band the Younger Lovers, the co-founder of the experimental dance group the Brontez Purnell Dance Company, the creator of the renowned cult zine Fag School, and the director of several short films, music videos, and, most recently, the documentary Unstoppable Feat: Dances of Ed Mock.
Photo by Melissa Dale Wood