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Brontez Purnell plays on the idea of memoir in 'Ten Bridges I've Burnt'

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

Finally today, Brontez Purnell is a musician, dancer and writer who brings a punk rock vibe to all those mediums. His new book is "Ten Bridges I've Burnt: A Memoir In Verse." It tackles life as a queer Black man from Alabama to Oakland with no holds barred. I chatted with him recently and asked him to begin by reading a poem that meant a lot to him. This one is called "I Am Decided."

BRONTEZ PURNELL: (Reading) I said to my gay uncle when I was 20, boys don't like me. Not even looking up from the fried chicken he was breading for dinner, he said to me, honey, go look outside that window there and on the sidewalk. You'll see that in San Francisco, even the trash gets picked up once a week.

DOMONOSKE: Why that poem?

PURNELL: Because it was a great thing to hear at the age of 20. We never enjoy being young. And we look back at pictures and think, why did I ever have low self-esteem? I should have went to Atlanta and married a basketball player. I should have been, you know, stuck in the Bay making surf rock. But I always - I look at that poem, and I giggle. And it's always nice when some older person says to you, honey, you're just enough.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, but also calls you trash along the way.

(LAUGHTER)

PURNELL: No. Even the trash, even the trash gets picked up.

DOMONOSKE: The poems in this collection are honest, vulnerable and hilarious. As we talked, I asked why he called this poetry collection a memoir.

PURNELL: I do believe that for marginalized people, women, people of color, gay people, all types of stuff, we are most seriously considered when we call something a memoir. Something has to be pulled directly from our gut and our visceral experience in order for us to be, you know, considered something worthwhile or reading. It always has to be a first-hand account. So I called it a memoir, where even in some parts, it's still a pack of lies. And I also was hoping that I would get canceled the same way that New York Times person got canceled that time for pretending something was memoir. But no one ever seems to cancel me like that. I don't - none of my books get banned in Florida. It really hurts my feelings.

DOMONOSKE: There's still time.

PURNELL: There's still time. Yeah. I had my fingers crossed.

DOMONOSKE: I loved your poem "Graduation," which talks about how we watch too much TV and like things to be linear. Could you read some of "Graduation" on Page 119?

PURNELL: (Reading) Forgive me for being too grand, but allow me, just for once in my life, to say, if all space became one building, my body, and all time, one second, my lifetime, it could stand to reason that I am the only God here. I am the only witness to this body. I have learned to love the hundred pounds I have gained over the last two years, for no other reason than I viscerally feel the effects of gravity more. The wave of invisible attraction to the earth becomes more evident the heavier I become, either in body or mind.

DOMONOSKE: You know, I'm really struck by how bodily this poem becomes, how physical. And I'm wondering. You know, you are also a dancer. Can you talk about how in your work you engage with the body and also the divine, the sacred in that part? Not to get - what's the line? - not to get too grand.

PURNELL: Oh, no, not at all. Well, I mean, I also think, yeah, I do think - I've spent a decade dancing in professional companies. But then also, really, when I got to the point of me, you know, only knowing English, but then one day realizing that dance was another language, like, when you're in ballet class and for years the teacher says spread toes to push up, and you're like, what on earth is she talking about? But then one day - one day, I was in class. This was maybe four years ago. I just - I actually, like, it really sunk in that, like, it's not even about spreading the actual toes. It's about the energetic feel, the synapse of feeling your toes flattening to the ground to go up. That's how you hold stability in a releve.

And that's when it dawned on me that I had learned another language. It took me somewhere close to 15 years to finally put the language into my body. So I can only imagine how some people feel about words. You know, it takes a lot of people a long time to understand what it means to sit inside the consciousness, to have a mind and to have a body. And, dear God, to get both of those things to work at the same time takes a lot of work. So I do think that's what my poetry gets at.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. There's a moment in one of your poems where you or the speaker is passed out on the ground and says, don't worry about me. I'm basking in my celestialness. I was like, on the ground, in a body, but also celestial at the same time, right?

PURNELL: Truly. Truly. Especially if you have danced to the point of passing out, it does feel pretty celestial. Or maybe there's just no oxygen getting to your brain so you feel godlike.

DOMONOSKE: Can you read one more poem for us? "Rage Of Every Color."

PURNELL: "Rage Of Every Color." (Reading) You want to see me explode into colors, don't you? If I could dream of every night and be so quick to silence it. Annihilate each laid brick of the house I retrofit. You deliberately misinterpret me, like, constantly. See me only as the man who represents the 10 bridges I've burned but not the hundreds I've built. Girl, forget you. Whether or not multiplicity is to your taste, I shall give you a feast.

DOMONOSKE: So why did you choose to call this book "Ten Bridges I've Burned"? Which you lay out there as a misinterpretation of you.

PURNELL: OK. Let's be very clear here. To say it quite honestly, this book was originally supposed to be called "Oath Of Athenian Youth." But I think everyone was kind of like. Brontez, only Anne Carson can get away with calling something "Oath Of Athenian Youth." We have to get your book to sell. So "Ten Bridges I've Burned" is, I think, is a sexier title. And it does throw more of a brick. But I also - I don't know. I do think it's fitting. I was worried about it feeling very, like, indicting or something like that. But I do think it's about - I do like the way that it's a part of the book that's - it's a line describing how the person being interpreted has been misunderstood. And I think only the people that actually catch that, I think that's who this book is truly for.

DOMONOSKE: Before we let you go, I would love it if you could also just read the acknowledgments for us.

PURNELL: I would like to thank the Alabama public school system for gifting me irony, foreshadowing, rage and the secular witchcraft that is literature. Also, my eighth grade writing teacher, the rabbi's wife, who gifted me banned literature.

DOMONOSKE: I don't have a question about that. I just love it.

PURNELL: Yeah. No problem (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: Brontez Purnell is the author of "Oath Of Athenian Youth," also known as "Ten Bridges I've Burned." Thanks so much for talking with us.

PURNELL: Anytime. It was amazing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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