An Interview With PNW Literary Luminary Cooper Lee Bombardier
Cooper Lee Bombardier is a writer and visual artist from the South Shore of Boston and currently based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has been a construction worker, a cook, carpenter, union stagehand, bouncer, welder, shop steward, dishwasher, truck driver, and house painter, among other things. His writing appears in many publications and anthologies, such as The Kenyon Review, CutBank, Nailed Magazine, and The Rumpus. His work has appeared recently in the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology The Remedy–Essays on Queer Health Issues, (ed. Zena Sharman) and Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Speculative Fiction From Transgender Writers, (eds. Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett). Huffington Post named him one of “10 Transgender Artists Who Are Changing The Landscape Of Contemporary Art.” His visual art was recently curated in an exhibition called “Intersectionality” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, and hung recently in shows at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, NM, the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco, and at Helltown Workshop in Provincetown, MA. His visual work has been published in the journals Faggot Dinosaur and CutBank. A veteran of the original Sister Spit tours, he's performed, lectured, and exhibited art across North America. Cooper is the fiction editor at Gertrude Press, an ELL volunteer tutor for immigrant community members at his local public library, and serves on the board of directors of Stepping Stone, the only organization in the Maritimes with support and programming for sex workers. He has received fellowships from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Lambda Literary Foundation, and RADAR Labs. Cooper Lee has taught writing at the University of Portland, Clark College, Portland State University, and at various Portland-area high schools as a writer-in-residence through Literary Art's program Writers in The Schools. He is a 2018 Writer-In-Residence at the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Critical Studies graduate program and will be leading a weekend writing intensive workshop for the program’s Creative Nonfiction course.
How does writing nonfiction differ from fiction or poetry in your practice?
CLB: In my practice, creative nonfiction means I am explicitly showing my hand to the imagined reader. I'm frontloading the text with an unspoken contract: I am going to dissect my own sense of self, as it pertains to a particular experience, and while attempting to be as forthright and truthful as possible to my understanding of said events and its impacts, I'll use whatever literary tools are available to me to arrive at a place of meaning-making and reflection. In my fiction writing I've certainly flayed myself and my own subjective experiences on the page, however, that unspoken contract of hewing as closely to the truth, whatever that means, is not present. Perhaps we can think of different genres of creative writing as being capable of delivering us to the same destination but with vastly different vehicles and subsequent expectations of what the journey will be like. To throw more balls onto the court, we can think of how hybrid forms and genre-resistant works might complicate or subvert all of these sometimes arbitrary notions of form and genre even further. Look at Michelle Tea's fantastic book Black Wave, that merges memoir and fiction. Or Eileen Myles's most recent, deep and shattering memoir, Afterglow, co-written in part by her dog.
Is there anything you feel you can do with nonfiction that you can’t accomplish with fiction, poetry, or other art forms?
CLB: When I am writing creative nonfiction, I make myself vulnerable on the page because I am inviting a reader in, propping open the door to a consciousness, and allowing them to have a seat and watch me wrestle through experience and try to mill it into art. I'm reminded of Ann Pachett writing about Lucy Grealy being peeved by attendees at reading of her great memoir Autobiography of a Face. Someone had asked Lucy how she could have remembered all of these experiences and she shot back that she didn't remember it, she wrote it. She also was annoyed by readers who connected more with the topic (Grealy's experience with disfiguring cancer of the jaw) than the art she had created, as a poet, from these experiences. This is a good example of one of the most important things to consider about creative nonfiction writing. It is not reportage, and it is not investigative journalism. It is about the art of the process, the craft, the shaping of the experience and the language we deploy to render it. The how of what is written may be even more important than the what. An interesting anecdote is not a memoir. Nor is it a status update, as Dani Shapiro so wisely wrote in The New Yorker. This notion of getting to inhabit a consciousness mucking through experience and thinking through what experience might mean, via the process of writing, is powerful to me. Not just because it can increase our understanding of any one individual or experience, but what that writer's experience also reveals about the culture and the location and moment from which they were writing. Again, one might certainly accomplish similar aims through other forms of writing, but the process of arrival and expectation of the journey might differ.
How do you approach writing about personal experiences? Has the process of writing ever changed your perception of your experience?
CLB: The ideas that nag at me and feel the most terrifying to write about seem like the most important to investigate through writing. I do my best thinking through writing. Writing gives me an opportunity to be more compassionate towards the self I am writing about because it allows for distance at the same time it allows for intense scrutiny. Writing allows for pause, reflection, and revision. Perhaps the more shameful, painful, and confusing personal moments appeal to me as subjects for creative nonfiction work because I might otherwise be unable to make sense of them, or to explore what it means to have been wrong, flawed, and complicated. Chris Kraus said that the greatest freedom of all is the freedom to be wrong, which for anyone who is not a cisgendered, heterosexual, able, and financially secure white male writer, is a pretty radical notion. Think about what's at stake for a marginalized writer of any stripe to be free to be wrong in their work. On the page, experience is allowed nuance, complexity, and ambiguity. I can steer toward making meaning, but I never feel like I have to come to a tidy answer, either, because seldom has life delivered me tidy answers.
The process of writing has changed my perception of my own experiences, most certainly. The first time this ever happened for me, I was writing a short piece that coalesced around specific memories of the street I grew up on. I tended to not characterize my childhood as positive or happy, but in this particular piece, I used the descriptions of memories of events that connected to the street and this became an unintentional constraint. So, after writing that piece, I had a glimpse of myself as little bit of a resilient, maybe even badass kid, rather than an isolated, gender-incorrigible outcast. All of these selves are true, are part of the story, but in resisting the urge to tell all of the possible aspects of the story at once, something surprising came out of the process for me.
How have you found publications and writing communities that are inclusive and supportive of queer and trans creators?
CLB: In my adult life, there always have been publications and writing communities supportive of queer and trans artists and writers, but now the means of transmission and reach are more rapid, more accessible in some ways, and more democratized. It is much more accessible now for someone to put up an online queer/trans lit journal and to publish work they like and to disseminate it to a readership than it was then to make zines and to travel around the country in a decrepit van and perform spoken word in all manner of venues and to sleep on stranger's floors in a sleeping bag in the 1990s. The form and function of connection differs, and we may be able to access more art and writing, from around the globe, more quickly than ever before, but to me it is also important to keep investing energy into in-person, in-real-life, creative communities and friendships.
Is there another queer/trans writer whose work has influenced you lately?
CLB: How long do you have? I could pen you a scroll of a list. Yes. I am incredibly lucky for all of the queer/trans writer friends in my life, and they all influence me in various ways. Michelle Tea and Eileen Myles have long been huge inspirations, beloved friends, and so incredibly generous with their creative support. Both of them are brilliant writers and overwhelmingly prolific, and I admire how they each continually push their own oeuvres and take formal risks with their works. I'm reading the beautiful, brilliant poetry of Samiya Bashir right now, her latest book Field Theories, and I recently finished Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor, which was so sexy and subversive and smart. I'm a huge fan of Roxane Gay, and her book Hunger is so powerful, and is a must-read, both for form and content. I love the poetry of Cat Fitzpatrick, and the fiction of Casey Plett, who has a novel coming out really soon. Cat and Casey edited the anthology of trans speculative fiction called Meanwhile, Elsewhere, which included a short story of mine, and it was an incredible experience to work with these two women. It is a gift to be so closely and carefully read, and to be put through my paces to make a piece as strong as it can be. I'm a huge fan of the writer Morgan M. Page, who also puts out an important podcast called “One From The Vaults,” which delves deep into trans history. Her podcast feels like such a balm, such an antidote, to the subcultural in-fighting, over-simplification, and sometimes reductive and ahistorical debates in the trans community that can really get me down. Her work is a reminder that we are varied, multivalent, and that we've been around for a very long time, and to keep our eyes on the long game. Ryka Aoki is a big influence not only through her poetry and fiction but also as a human in the world. I'm only now diving into the work of Wayne Kostenbaum, who really is a queer polymath, and I am inspired by the writing and art and criticism of Matias Viegener. I'm also working my way through Writers Who Love Too Much, edited by Dodie Belamy and Kevin Killian, and this book is so important to me and has given me the gift of helping to articulate my literary ancestry and to understand the context of the influence the New Narrative writers have had on me and my work. One book that came to me exactly when I needed it this past summer while I was staying in Vancouver, BC to write, was Lonely City by Olivia Lang. It was quite literally a companion to me, and I so very much loved the vulnerability of her subjectivity, the reverent curiosity of the research, and the way it made me feel held as a writer working in a city not my own, where I, too, felt lonely. I could keep going on and on, so I'd cap my list here for now.