Brontez Purnell: Love, Compassion, and Rock & Roll
“I basically wanted to do a zine that reflected what I was feeling at the time. With Fag School, Ā I hadnāt really seen a zine or at least a personal gay zine that dealt with the difficult subject of gay sex with both humor and frank talk. It covered some real issues. Race, the condom code…”
Most just live what they see. They experience it all, or not, but they dare not say it, and they remain out-of-sync. In his performances, multi-hyphenate artist Brontez Purnell sees things that rarely anyone identifies. And when he says it, the audience is left breathless, shocked by mirrors of recognition and familiarity.
Purnell produced his first zine, āSchlepp Fanzine,ā from his childhood home in Alabama. Since then, he moved to Tennessee and then to California to bring his original voice to music, dance, and the written word. In Oakland, he produced his next zine, Fag School, Ā filled with filth, awe, and wonder. Because of his magnetic presence and lurid but honest portrayals of punk rock-infused queer life, Purnell has become somewhat of a star on the literary-reading circuit. His writing has appeared in Maximum RockāNāRoll, the online edition of Ā Jigsaw, and Mary: Literary. Ā He also can be seen bringing his combination of truth-telling and heart to his punk rock band, The Younger Lovers.
Purnell is not queercore ā he is Brontez. Through all of his evolving art, he is in the world as himself. All of his art is unflinching and candid about the unspoken known: āDid he just say that?ā ā yes, he did, and he meant it, unselfconsciously, and he said it with a sweet touch and a relaxed empathy.
Purnell took some time to talk with Lambda Literary about his writing process, creative goals, Tennessee Williams, Tyler Perry, and compassion.
How are you feeling today?
Frazzled. I just performed at the Yerba Buena the last three days in the Left Coast Leaning Festival with the Anna Martine Whitehead Group. A piece about voyeurism of the black performing body. Lots of deep shit. Lots of processing. But waaaay fucking fun.
Whose body who?
Were you the body, or the voyeur?
I mostly want to talk about your process and words, the literary, songs, poems, the like.
I was trying to write something to sum you up ā to start us off.
Sum me up ā oh, Lord! Go ahead, girl.
Your work seems based in catharsis. I get a feeling that anyone who watches you has to exhale and explode ā like an exorcism.
Whatās your source of creativity? What drives you?
Hmmmmm, I donāt really know. Thereās this inner thing in me that wonāt let me shut the fuck up. Itās not mine to question, really. I just have to answer to it, is the best way I can describe it.
What does that inner thing feel like?
Divine intuition. I guess.
What gets you out of bed in the morning? What makes you tick? All the same thing?
Yeah. I felt like an adult when no matter how fucked up I got the night before, I still made it up by 9 a.m. to get shit done. Thank God I donāt go that hard anymore! This particular morning, I got up because of a grouchy bed partner. Like, he really pissed me off.
Will you turn him into art? The next thing you write?
Fuck no. Thereās so much about my life that I would not dare commit to ink. I still have this time with masking things in my writing, like I mix fiction in here and there to protect the innocent, as well as the wicked, but whatās funny is the stuff thatās fiction is always taken to heart and the very true things people interpret as fiction from time to time.
Why do you think that is? Do you care if they interpret you as intended? Is it misinterpretation?
I think real life is stranger than fiction often. Like, sometimes, I can write about experiences Iāve had. Even frame…and case them in the most normal frame, free of social commentary, and itās still like, āHoly shit, that happened.ā You know? I long to be understood. Thatās why I write. I donāt take it lightly when I feel like Iāve been misunderstood, but Iām also sensitive to the fact that the world has, like, 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 fucking dimensions, and, honey, not everyone is gonna see the story how you see it. Itās both heartbreaking and totally fine.
Youāre the incarnation of a story of relentless self-expansion. What title do you put on your business card?
āLoan me $20.ā
Do you have a creative through-line? Whatās your journey, motivation?
I wanna be the next Tyler Perry and Tennessee Williams. Simulfuckingtaneously.
They are the same man ā just different time periods.
I know! No one else gets it when I say that! Like, one is a drama man who kisses it with comedy, and the other is a comedy man who kisses it with drama. Very southern gothic style and very, forgive me for saying this, niggerish. Both very genius.
Tyler Perry walked past me. He has Idris-Brando-Denzel-Pitt energy, boots ā with a soupĆ§on of Javier Bardem.
When did he walk past you? Now?
I went to one of his premieres.
Is he top-daddy hotā¦
ā¦Or not really?
He made me feel like a BeyoncĆ© lyric.
Though his portrayal of gay characters is problematic, I still want him to walk me around on a dog leash in his mansion in Atlanta.
I will be in the kitchen cooking ham biscuits in a jockstrap.
We have a future!
Why did you start your zines? What were you most wanting to express?
So with the zines. Hmmmmm. I basically wanted to do a zine that reflected what I was feeling at the time. With āFag School,ā Ā I hadnāt really seen a zine or at least a personal gay zine that dealt with the difficult subject of gay sex with both humor and frank talk. It covered some real issues. Race, the condom code, poop dick. You know? And also be an old-fashioned punk zine. I want to express experience and exorcise the demons of my somewhat experimental 20s. Iām doing the last two issues now.
When I see your art, I have the same reaction as my straight dad watching Richard Pryor.
Holy shit ā now that made my fucking day!
You are welcome. What is your writing process?
Telling the story to myself over and over, sometimes even talking to myself about it ā I look like a fucking crazy person on the street. When I can recite it fully in my head, I then commit it to paper.
So you write everything in your head first? Anything with words? Stories, lyrics, poems?
Mostly. I have some things that I commit to paper first. Like, if I hear a good riff in my head, just start there, or, if itās a writing exercise.
An exercise you create? To challenge yourself?
Totally, or just like a warm-up. I dance, and so Iāve noticed the mind as well as the body has to be warmed up first to prepare it for leaps.
How does dance influence your writing? Are you a dancer before anything else? Your words come from where your dance comes from ā the same part of the brain. That is why we connect to it like we do. Itās not static ā it moves.
I have to say Iām not a dancer before everything else, but I differ with how much space I occupy with each at a given time. Iām ultimately a communicator and will use any dirty trick to get you to notice and understand me, be it my body or my words.
What youāre doing ā not raunch but freedom, yeah? Doing which project have you felt the freest?
I think they all have their ratio of liberating and confining. I donāt feel any form of communication is 100-percent perfect. Thereās always something that canāt be fully explained or is mystery.
Are you fearless or courageous?
I donāt really feel like either! I really think itās just my inner canāt-shut-the-fuck-up thing!
What will you put yourself on the line for? What rule will you not break?
Like a million! I have all these weird self-stipulations with my writing that I donāt really think anyone would understand but me. Though I can bust some pretty crazy shit, I can easily go through 10 drafts and months of reciting until I can commit a story to paper.
What are a few? Is it about not causing offense? Is it about being compassionate?
Um, I canāt really think of something specific, but yeah, compassion is the goal.
Too many ascribe something negative as something outside their norm. Letās say punk or queer. Itās not a state of meanness. Itās just another human expression. Itās utopia amid evolution.
On the subject of being compassionate, I have a pretty robust writing style, you know? Very brazen, very upfront, very humorous, but to keep myself from turning into, like, Bukowski, the line Iām always redrawing in the sand is how to keep it very much in the voice of the reader, so, you know, this is Ā ‘this crazy sisterās trip’ and not something I wouldnāt cosign on for other people, you know? Like, I wouldnāt want some 16-year-old boy to read about my experience at the bathhouse and make it sound like a good idea ā though I have to say, if I had read the stories I do now as the type of 16-year-old I was I would be scared shitless. I have to always, in order to be compassionate and responsible, explain and frame things as a cautionary tale with skulls and bones on it, you know? I also always have a time with humor and what type of humor is responsible. Tragedy and comedy are very entangled. But I am someone who believes that itās dangerous to let humor take away from the power of what youāre saying. Like how itās tragic if you write a story about being blacked-out at the bathhouse, but itās no less funny if you also say, fuck someone who looks like Santa Claus or slip on a pile of human feces that some deranged person left in the walkway. I wish to God I was joking about this.
Who do you feel is the patron saint of our age?
I really truly honestly think it might be Kenyon Farrow. Real talk!
Nice. What is your favorite lyric of all time?
āIāve got friends
In low places
Where the whiskey drowns
And the beer chases my blues away
And Iāll be okay
Iām not big
On social graces
Think Iāll slip on down
To the oasis
Oh, Iāve got friends
In low places.ā
Garth Brooks! Wow. Most influential book? Favorite book?
In eighth grade, I read this book called The Giver about this boy Jonas, I think his name is. Who is the only person in the society who can interpret things like pain, color, sexual feelings, all this crazy shit. He runs away from it all at the end to find a better place. I donāt know if itās my favorite book of all time, but whenever Iām asked āWhatās your favorite book?,ā itās the first thing that pops in my head. It left a huge impression on me.
Who was your first literary crush?
What do you want your legacy to be?
I think Iām still negotiating that, like, seriously, every day!
Have you been invented yet? Were you born this way?
I donāt think so! Invention is a hard word. Like, sometimes I feel like I have this goal and purpose, and Iām, like, a man, like, 30, and I have to say my inner voice feels the most embodied that itās ever been. So yes, in this one way I feel invented. I take invented to mean that youāve created a life or are trying to make a life for yourself that you can look at and be proud of. But then, in that other real way, I feel like I have my ass handed to me on a platter every other week in some form. I donāt always cook for myself. I drink a lot, like a lot, and I often call my mom and cry. Like, I can just as easily flip and be a crazy man-baby about everything. On these days, I donāt feel so invented. I was certainly born this way!
Are you an optimist? What happens in the future?
Iām not an optimist. Iām more than certain Iāll probably die poor. Fuck it.
So, final question, I made up a new questionnaire about personality, like the Proust Questionnaire. Itās based on the meanings of the eight colors on the original pride flag. What does each one mean to you in a phrase or sentence? ā first thought best thought. Hot pink: sexuality?
Turquoise: magic and art?
Indigo blue: serenity and harmony?