10 Questions with LitReactor Instructor and Memoirist Cooper Lee Bombardier
2014 has been an incredible year for trans artists. Many have hailed Janet Mock's bestselling memoir about discovering her identity and Laverne Cox's cover story in Time to be momentous steps forward toward equality.
There remains, however, much distance to travel. And here to teach a four-week workshop about digging into identity is Cooper Lee Bombardier.
Cooper is a writer and visual artist based in Portland, Oregon. His writing has appeared in various publications, including CutBank, Original Plumbing, Unshod Quills, Cavalcade, Lambda Literary Review, Plasm, and The Rumpus, as well as several anthologies, including From the Inside Out: Radical Gender Transformation FTM and Beyond, Trans/Love, and Sister Spit: Writing, Rants and Reminiscence from the Road.
A veteran of the original Sister Spit tours, he has performed and exhibited art nationally. He holds a masters degree in writing/book publishing and an MFA in creative writing/nonfiction from Portland State University. He is currently teaching writing at Portland State University and through Literary Arts' Writers In The Schools program.
To gear up for his class, Writing From Your Queer Goldmine, we posed our 10 Questions to Cooper.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
When I was in kindergarten I constantly wrote and illustrated comics (the term graphic novel wasn't something in use back then, really) of this anthropomorphic character "John Wolf," who was a wolf-headed human, and also a sort of representation of myself. In drawing John Wolf and concocting scenarios for him, I was able to express something of both my discomfort and curiosity around gender assignations and to an extent the sense of being a freak in my own embodiment, even then. Also, John Wolf always wore one of those camo-cloth covered Vietnam army helmets, because my father was in the Army and I was obsessed with his military gear as a kid. I have no idea what ever became of these drawings, but I'd be interested in looking at them now.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
I remember being like, “Woohoo— I made twenty bucks on my writing!" Then I toured the book across the US for several weeks with one of the publishers and a contributing author. I still hold to much of my queer punk ethos but I reject the idea that I shouldn't be paid for my writing or teaching. Now I put any money I make from selling my writing (not teaching writing) in a special writing savings account.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full...how do you write?
Writing is a cumulative process for me, and the more consistent I am with keeping dedicated writing time, the easier it is for me to stay in the world of a project. Too much time in between and the groove is harder to get back in to. I teach writing at a university and elsewhere, and also work a part-time job, so it's even more imperative for me to protect that time and keep it separate. I work at my desk at home or in coffee shops sometimes. A cup of good coffee is crucial. I usually won't have music playing unless I really want to imbibe in the sonic milieu of the time period I am writing about. I typically work on a computer, but in the idea generating/brainstorm stage I will often write in a notebook. I like Pilot G2 pens and yellow legal pads or black hardcover sketchbooks. I can be pretty ADD, so getting settled in might take some goofing off. I've learned to accept goofing off as part of the process, whether it is conducting some internet “research,” or reading a passage of something that really inspires my work. If I am working at the desk, I set a boxing round timer and try to get my ass out of the chair and do a few pull ups or push ups or prisoner squats to keep the blood moving and my energy up. I do a lot of drafting in my head and walking my dog around my neighborhood always helps this.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
I wish I had understood the importance of developing a consistent practice and that I had implemented one for myself a lot sooner. I get why I wasn't able to do this, which gets into a whole long story about needing to work through a lot of personal trauma and to move beyond survival existence to be able to find the courage to invest in the things I really wanted out of life. I've forgiven myself for not being able to see this sooner, and also feel a lot of gratitude that I finally got to a place where I could take responsibility for my creative life.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
I am deep in a memoir project about some very intense personal and family events I experienced in my early twenties. It turns out the work is so much more about coming to a place of peace within my family than I had originally anticipated. It is the hardest work I've ever done, but there is catharsis in spending years examining and writing about your emotional response to trauma and uncovering things you hadn't expected to find. I also found I really had to make peace with that younger me in order to write about that time.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
More so than a drink, I'd actually like to have a smoke on the high ridge of a gabled roof with Mick Kelly from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I don't smoke cigarettes anymore but I would make an exception for this magical occurrence. I've long admired her gumption and world-view, and felt a sense of recognition of my tomboy kid-self when I first encountered Mick in reading Carson McCullers. I've found myself in more than one hairy, life-or-death situation repeating her words in my head: "Nerve, Mick, you've got to keep nerve."
Where do you buy your books?
I live in Portland, so whenever possible I like to buy at Powell's City of Books on Burnside. It's great to live in a city where a bookstore is one of the biggest tourist attractions. I like to buy directly from small presses online or from authors at readings, too.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
It depends on context. I am a sensitive person but not a fragile person, by any means. So, it's kind of like that twelve-step maxim of "take what you can use and leave the rest." A bad review is still a review, and there is value in someone reading your work and taking the time to speak to it. I have to triangulate between what my gut is telling me, my ego's initial response, and what I can take away to make my work do what I want it to do better. I will contemplate thought-out and informed critique, but I am not interested in social networking type commentary from folks who haven't read my stuff and who type and hit post without thinking. Jean Cocteau said that we should "note carefully just what it is that the critics don’t like —then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” At the end of the day I have to trust my gut. The more I am able to decouple my ego from both praise and criticism, the easier it is to stay focused on deepening in my work and getting it to a place I want it to be. That struggle is ongoing, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
I cringe when I hear so much emphasis placed on the idea of “the writer's life.” That's much more about the marketing copy of an MFA program than the reality of a person's actual life. A writer's life is someone with a 9-5 job who writes in the evenings, or someone who works graveyard security shifts, or is a single mom on public assistance who writes when the kid is napping. There are people who write full-time because their partner makes enough money that they don't have to work. There are as many ways to have a “writer's life” as there are to have a life. I think being a writer is much more about the amount of time and dedication and effort and seriousness you put in to your writing (and reading) than how you fit the writing into your life. It isn't useful to compare one's own internal process to the external indicators of another's.
WILDCARD: What do you think about the current representations of queer and trans experiences in literature?
This is a very exciting time to be a trans writer and a reader of trans writing. Last spring I organized and presented on a panel on trans writers teaching trans-specific workshops, as well as performed a reading, for the Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures and Criticisms conference at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba. It took me a few weeks to recover from the mental overload of being in a space filled with trans people talking about the creative and intellectual output of transgender people. This in itself is a momentous thing. Prior to Winnipeg, most of the time a large group of trans people came together it was to share resources and access to tools for survival, or to agitate for our right to simply exist. The brilliant writer Ryka Aoki said this thing about how vulnerable it was to read to an auditorium of all trans people, and how easy it is to hide behind our identities. It really summed up for me why the conference was so significant: it was an identifiable moment where trans people were writing for trans audiences and writing beyond the didactic, simply explaining our existences to others. I've been reading many of the Topside Press offerings over the last couple of months: Nevada by Imogene Binne, A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett, I've Got a Time Bomb by Sybil Lamb, and now I am about halfway through Ryka Aoki's gorgeous, funny book He Mele A Hilo. Trans literary output is in a thrilling moment. I think: yes, more please.
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