“We make our own families.” A conversation with Bradford Tice
I have loved you all this time, and my heart has gone off
like a gun into the ground, wrapped in the arms
of the sinking masses. This is what it comes to–a gouged
trench into which everything is dropped. You call it death.
I call it desire. By the way, I made it with that boy, the slim
camber of his wrists a flute. He called me ‘querida, beleza.’
Darling, beautiful. Hope you don’t mind, my love.
–From “Psyche in the Time Between,” What The Night Numbered (Trio House Press)
JADA PIERCE: “History is often the horror of overturning what is kept from light.” How and when did this idea—to combine the history of the Stonewall girls with the myth of Cupid and Psyche—occur to you?
BRADFORD TICE: To be honest, I’m not sure when I had the idea of merging the myth with the events of the Stonewall Riots. I had wanted to write about the Stonewall for a while, and I think there was a time when I was thinking about the two subjects a lot and they just became entangled. I do remember though the moment I decided to run with the project, which was after a dinner with a dear friend of mine, who had coincidentally worked with the gay community for years as a social worker dealing with HIV and AIDS patients. I was telling her about my idea for this project, and she admitted to me that she had never heard of the Stonewall Riots, and was a little chagrined by this fact. I remember at one point she looked at me and said, “You have to write this book. It pisses me off that I’ve never heard of this history.” So with that charge, I sallied forth.
I have, since I was a young boy reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, been fascinated by myth, and later, when I came to poetry, I was equally fascinated by gay poets who I read—Thom Gunn and Robert Duncan—who used myth as a tool of reclaiming. Myths and archetypes are the shared narratives of our culture; they’re the collective unconscious. I think for me there was this desire to locate my own personal history within the background of those narratives. Of course, they were always there. They’d just been whitewashed and sanitized. Hamilton wasn’t too forthcoming about the nature of Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus, so growing up with these stories, I often had to read between the lines.
My favorite myth growing up was the myth of Cupid and Psyche, the story of how this ill-behaved god is tamed and brought to order by the stabilizing institution of marriage. But the real hero of that story is Psyche, who is given a rather raw deal early on (a false prophecy and an even worse breakup). She’s the one willing to walk to the other side of death to reclaim her love. That always seemed pretty badass to me, so I knew that I wanted to do something with her and that narrative.
JP: I believe the first poem, “Two Falsehoods,” uses a more objective point of view to introduce the cultures and the stories your book weaves together as part myth, part history. I mention this because the voices of your Stonewall characters, Cupid, and Psyche take over most of the poems in the collection, but I felt this first piece and especially some of the other early poems in the book carry details that sound as if they come from the memory and story of your own childhood. Maybe it’s your grandmother who said, “A story is a lie with legs,” or it’s perhaps someone like your own grandmother who plays the role of Venus in “Psyche’s First Trial,” and even those broken action figures that appear buried beneath a rock on a farm in Nebraska in “Psyche in the Time Between,” they could be your own. So I guess I’m curious how much you feel your own story factors into these poems, given that the book’s nexus is Stonewall and the myth? If you do feel your story is also being told by these poems, do you believe it is embodied by Psyche or more subtly, through the personal details of your imagery?
BT: Honestly, there’s not a lot of autobiography in these poems, but as I say that, I hear this little voice in my head saying, liar. My first book Rare Earth was so very confessional and personal that when I started writing this project, I think I intentionally stepped away from myself a bit. I felt a lot of pressure while working on these poems to “get it right,” whatever that might mean, and I was worried that if I made it too personal it would end up seeming self-indulgent. I was very conscious of the fact that this wasn’t my story, and that the characters were real men and women who had done this extraordinary thing, and that the onus was on me to honor the lives of those individuals by channeling them rather than appropriating them. However, that being said, the artist’s endeavor to divorce the self from his or her work is invariable an exercise in failure. The character of Psyche and the various incarnations of Cupid that emerge in the book—none of them are me, but they are a recasting or an reimagining of history through the filters of my words, ideas, memories. So yes, Psyche, c’est moi.
Also, there are indeed a number of G.I. Joes somewhere in the earth of my mother’s garden in Tennessee. I had buried them, because they had died an honorable death, and then I promptly forgot where I buried them. When I was drafting the piece “Psyche in the Time Between,” that childhood game seemed a pretty apt metaphor for history and our desire for lost thing, and so it became part of the collection in a modified way.
JP: Of course the grandmother is also a matriarch, one kind of cultural gatekeeper with her stories and expectations created by the past: “the garden was what I lost,” her well-tended garden, her cultural norms, the Garden of Eden for those with ties to certain religions, what anyone loses when they stray from their familial and cultural norms. What role do you believe the Stonewall Girls play alongside these archetypes?
BT: I think all of these girls are scarred by a world that wants to label them as defective. It’s interesting that you mention the figure of the matriarch, a typically non-Western vision of feminine power. The gay community, and gay men specifically, have long looked toward strong women in music, film, etc. as a source of power. Western culture often intimately binds together sexuality and gender. People’s critiques of gay men and lesbians often come down to a perceived failure to properly play gender, so I think gay men’s love of a diva comes from a recognition that strong women are a kind of gender defiance. Women are supposed to be soft, just as gay men (as ‘failed’ men) are supposed to be soft. Powerful women stood in opposition to that, and the poem “Elegy to Judy” (an elegy written in the voice of Psyche to Judy Garland) traffics in that territory.
However, the figure of the matriarch is also strongly gender coded to adhere to gender norms. The matriarch is the powerful mother, and mothers are charged with teaching their children how to navigate and assimilate the world. In the poem “Psyche’s First Trial,” Psyche is separating seeds into piles. She’s essentially categorizing things, putting each seed into its proper place. The terrifying realization she comes to in that poem is that there is no pile for her, and thus begins her journey away from that Nebraska farm. There is no place for her there. You mentioned that the grandmother (and so many of the other parental figures that appear in this collection) is a kind of gatekeeper to the cultural norms, mores, manners, etc. of our world, which is another way of saying that the gatekeeper is the one who stops us at the door and makes sure that we’re dressed the way young men and women are supposed to dress, speak, act, and feel. There’s no doubt that the Stonewall Girls have been shaped, and at times even scarred, by those gatekeepers. They are all very much aware of how society sees them—as deviants, as disordered, as threats to the social order, as failures in that gendered system—but I don’t think the Stonewall Girls therefore entirely reject that archetype. They complicate it, certainly, but the community these individuals create is very much like a family. The character of Zazu becomes a mother figure to these lost youths. She teaches them how to live on the streets. She gives them new names. She gives them a moral code by which to live. I wanted the Stonewall Girls to reflect what I see as an essential component of gay and lesbian survival, which is the idea that we make our own families.
JP: And aside from the fact that Psyche is a mortal from mythology, there’s also the connection to that part of our unconscious minds that more mysteriously controls our identities, our psyche, part of which is made up of desire. So goes the birth of Psyche according to Zazu, the transformation from boy to queen with the adoption of this particular name, “Psyche knew. Sometimes you have to name where it hurts.” Can you please talk about these lines a bit, especially placed together as they are, because they trend toward the psychoanalytical?
BT: The Stonewall Girls are all runaways and outcasts, but their crime more than anything is that they can’t fake it. Or won’t fake it. They’re the sissies. They’re the drag queens. They’re ‘obvious.’ As I was writing this I thought of Psyche as a transgender youth coming-of-age in a time when there wasn’t even a word to describe who she felt herself to be, and I wanted the book to capture the courage it would take to stand in the world like that—totally exposed and alien to everyone in the mainstream culture—because it was that kind of courage that was necessary for the Riots to take place. But she didn’t do it alone. There were the other misfits and queer rioters, and they leaned on one another. That’s what families do. So I see the Stonewall Girls as a kind of alternative family, and Psyche certainly takes a lot of her worldview from her grandmother, who she lived with in another kind of alternative family in order to escape, for a time, her father’s abuse.
JP: To me the tone with which sex is addressed by the various characters in this book often comes across as glib, with Cupid, our god of erotic love or the “Love Primordial,” embodying this in alternately hilarious (ex. “Cupid Bottoms for Psyche”) and uncomfortably dark representations (ex. “Cupid at the Asylum, “Cupid in Sheep’s Clothing”). Can you talk a little about Cupid’s role in the book as well as the more general attitude toward sexual desire, and how that relates to both stories?
BT: Cupid is the only ‘god’ who steps into this narrative, and therefore, he’s the only character who is somewhat “timeless.” I think that’s what gives him some of his glibness. Even when cast as a mortal, with mortal concerns as he is in “Cupid at the Asylum” or “Cupid in Sheep’s Clothing,” there’s a recognition that all of existence is cyclical. These mortal contests for love, freedom, etc. will pass away and then return in other permutations.
Also though, I wanted Cupid to represent duality. In the classic story, I always felt Cupid was a little bit of an ass. As a god, therefore incapable of understanding human curiosity (i.e. Psyche wanting to see his face in the light), he ends up getting his feelings hurt and running back to mommy. But then again, who doesn’t want to fall for the god of love. So I tried to make Cupid both a trickster figure, or someone who bursts the bubble on some of our culture’s most dearly held ideals and notions, and I tried to make him a divided person. So many of the characters in the Cupid poems are individuals who exist between two worlds. The heterosexual world and the homosexual. The family man and the john. The god and the mortal. The ideal and the damaged. To me, this made sense. Love is often seen as both a force of union and destruction, both a positive and negative force. The character of Cupid becomes the many voices of love. Within the narrative I represented this by having ‘Cupid’ be the name Psyche gives to all her johns and trysts, and therefore, each Cupid poem is another face of Psyche’s beloved. That face is not always a kind face.
The one exception to this was the poem “Cupid in Sheep’s Clothing” in which Cupid is figured as an undercover policeman staking out the Stonewall before the raid. I allowed myself this one because I felt I needed that voice, and I had said that Cupid could be anyone Psyche fucked, or vice versa. Since the verb ‘to fuck’ can also be used in the sense of ‘to fuck someone over,’ I reasoned that he could still fit in the series in that sense.
JP: And yet, Psyche’s character is capable of the most beautifully dark lines reflecting the duality of her love, but again the final turn is equally glib [see excerpt at top]. Thanatos always wins out over Eros when it comes to love and sexual desire for these characters. I see this happen in the shortest poem in the collection as well, “Shrine of Human Faces,” the final turn from the “tableau of stars” to “Whoever said those suns were anything/ more than beautiful burning rubbish?” How conscious were you about maintaining the self-judgment (i.e. the glib tone) in these voices throughout the book?
BT: I don’t necessarily see Thanatos and Eros as being combatants, one winning out over the other. I see them as the two faces of the same god. What makes love so precious is that it is fleeting. We treasure beauty because beauty always fades in one way or another. That’s why the French call an orgasm “the little death.” We fuck to remind ourselves that we’re alive, but at the same time, part of desire is recognition of the death mask behind the face. Recognition that we are mortal, and time is slipping through our fingers.
Psyche’s humor, and the bawdiness of the Stonewall Girls, comes from another place though. For them it’s a coping mechanism or survival tactic. Psyche’s humor comes from the tradition of high camp, which was a kind of argot among gay men, and still is. Camp was a form of performance among gay men of the time that involved self-deprecation, theatricality, and shocking excess. You see this type of humor in the piece “I Heard They Were Queer for One Another,” which is a piece meant to be very tongue-in-cheek:
I heard the mood changed outfits. Queens calling out the girls
escorted from the bar: ‘Have a good rest!
Those bags under her eyes have been packed for weeks!’
Waving them off. Bon voyage!
When the Riots started, they began as a kind of cat-and-mouse game with the cops raiding the bar. Humor can be a weapon of the disenfranchised. There’s a reason why they call it a ‘rapier wit.’ But as you said, there is an edge to that humor that becomes self-critical. While camp was certainly a way of making light of the fact that the LGBT community was so reviled by most in the mainstream culture, at times the mask slips and the characters reveal the very raw pain of living in a world that constantly makes you feel like a second-class individual or a freak. What the Riots revealed is that behind the humorous, camp-it-up bravado of these individuals was also a lot of anger and hurt. At a certain point, it was bound to boil over I think. So yes, I was very conscious of trying to keep sharp that edge to the glibness in these characters’ voices.
JP: In one of the final lines of the book Psyche concludes, “I was never quite sure if it were a heart/ or a brick I fondled.” Do you think the book concludes that there could be no feeling of pure love for these Stonewall Girls (and perhaps other LGBT people of the past), as the negative cultural attitudes toward their lifestyle constantly pervaded their self-image and personal relationships, ultimately requiring an act of retaliatory violence to free them? And where has history delivered us; to what degree do you believe LGBT individuals today still might bear this struggle internally or externally?
BT: I don’t know if there could be no pure love for any LGBT individuals coming out of the 1960s, but the deck was certainly stacked against them. One could certainly argue that the culture of fear and negative cultural attitudes of that time toward LGBT individuals arrested some individuals’ personal growth, thereby keeping them from forming lasting and positive relationships. And yes, I think even today you can find individuals whose self-image has been damaged by those negative cultural attitudes. I don’t even think it’s unique to the LGBT community. That struggle is universal.
We tend to think of the struggle for LGBT rights as being external in the sense of it being a fight for marriage equality, adoption rights, workplace security, and those things are undoubtedly important, and we don’t perhaps talk enough as a community and culture about healing those internal wounds. But the fight is a kind of balm. In the case of the Stonewall Riots, I think violence was not only inevitable, but needed. The community had to learn that we had it in us to fight back. What happened at Stonewall was a moment when we demanded our worth, and that’s a part of building selfhood as a community and as individuals. It was necessary to the healing process. Similarly, when the Supreme Court decision came down in June allowing same-sex marriage, I had a profound reaction. I actually cried, which is shocking for me, because I’m not a big crier. I don’t think even I knew how deep that wound was, how deep the infection, until it was lanced.
Regarding the characters of Cupid and Psyche in the book, I struggled for a long time with the ending. For a long time, I wanted the book to end with a marriage. With Cupid and Psyche joined. Maybe, given the LGBT community’s struggle for marriage equality during the time that these poems were written, I simply desired that sacrament. But I just couldn’t write that ending, and I think what I learned was that the characters weren’t necessarily too broken to love, but that they needed to figure out how to love themselves before they could love another, if I may paraphrase RuPaul. Or maybe it was that the Stonewall Girls were in love with something else, a song in the air that meant things were changing. Whatever the reason, throughout the book we see that Cupid isn’t necessarily the ideal mate. He’s the john, the blackmailer, the homophobe, the institutionalized, and he would have to get right with himself before he could be right for Psyche. My girl could do better.
JP: It seems your position as both a fiction writer and a poet makes you the perfect writer for a project like this one. How much did the fiction writer in you help with the crafting of this collection of poems?
BT: The fiction writer in me helped immensely with this book. Not only with individual poems but perhaps more so with the structuring of the book. There’s always that fun and terrifying moment for poets when we’re holding that stack of material, sitting in the middle of the floor and laying it all out in front of us, and thinking, How does this all go together? With this collection, it was fairly easy to structure the thing because the poems follow, for the most part, a rather linear trajectory through time.
JP: Did you know you would divide the book into four sections, one for each of Psyche’s trials?
BT: There was a breakthrough moment where I realized the “Trials” poems could be used as a thread to link the collection together. Originally, I had imagined the “Trials” poems as a sequence that would appear in the later half of the book, but as I wrote them, I realized that they were instead lynchpin pieces in Psyche’s narrative and that the sections of the book could grow around them. In fact, “Psyche’s Fourth Trial” starts the fourth section, but in many ways, I see that entire section as the final trial. If you reread Hamilton’s version of the myth, you’ll note that she describes Psyche having five trials—four that Venus demands of her and one that she imposes on herself when she opens the box containing Proserpina’s beauty. The last line of the book, a box containing the darkest of beauty, / I was not able to contain it, is an allusion to that final test.
JP: Okay, I’m going to step away from this collection for these last two questions. I believe I read in another interview with you that you were writing some poems about James Bond. Where did those pieces go? What’s next for you: more fiction, more poetry?
BT: I am indeed working on a collection about James Bond. As you can probably tell from my first two books, I’m extremely fascinated by the topics of gender and sexuality. In the new poems, I wanted to explore the topic of masculinity, and who better to explore masculinity with than Ian Fleming’s iconic character? The project is taking some interesting turns. If you’ve read the Fleming novels, they’re unabashedly politically incorrect for today’s readers (I would hope), but in their time they were the status quo. That has led me in this collection to explore moments in my own life where I wasn’t politically correct. Where I wasn’t my best self. There are also poems about James Bond himself, and the collection may also be moving into an examination of BDSM culture. Fleming’s novels could be fairly described as soft-core S&M fantasies themselves. Everyone’s always getting tortured. Bond’s sexual fantasies toward women are often thinly veiled rape fantasies, and Bond himself is constantly placed in the diabolical and torturous hands of the villain. As a reader, I’m both intrigued and repulsed by this aspect of Fleming’s works, and I’m currently endeavoring to explore it a bit.
I’m also working on a novel that’s a kind of take on the Southern gothic.
JP: Which writers inspire you; who are you appreciating at the moment?
BT: I’ve always said that I owe my poetry career to Mark Doty. He’s not the first poet I ever came to, but he was the first poet who took the top of my head off, and I see a lot of his influence in my work. As for what I’ve been reading most recently, I’ve been perusing Catullus. Talk about bawdy! I’ve also been reading Frank O’Hara. Plus, two of my dear friends Charlotte Pence and my press mate at Trio House, Sandy Longhorn, have new collections out, and they’re fantastic! Pence’s book was published by Black Lawrence Press and titled Many Small Fires, and Longhorn’s new book The Alchemy of My Mortal Form fascinates me because of the incredible way she reinvests the persona poem in that collection. Great stuff!
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Bradford Tice is the author of two books of poetry: Rare Earth (New Rivers Press, 2013), which was named the winner of the 2011 Many Voices Project and a 2014 Debut-litzer finalist, and What the Night Numbered (Trio House Press, 2015), winner of the 2014 Trio Award. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such periodicals as The Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, The American Scholar, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, Epoch, as well as in Best American Short Stories 2008. His poetry was also selected as the winner of Prairie Schooner’s 2009 Edward Stanley Award. He currently teaches at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln.
Jada Pierce has taught English and Humanities at the secondary and collegiate levels for the past fifteen years. She earned an M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Oregon, spent many years playing rock-n-roll, and now rears two young’ins in Portland, Oregon.