Bradley Trumpfheller is the author of the chapbook Reconstructions. Their work has appeared in Poetry, The Nation, jubilat, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. With Nabila Lovelace, they co-edit the website Divedapper. They have received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Michener Center, and currently live on occupied Massachuset territory.
Levi Todd: Hello! How are you doing these days? What’s been on your mind?
Bradley Trumpfheller: I’m doing pretty well. January has turned out to be a month of rest for me so far, which was much needed. It’s a slower time at the bookstore, as well as a moment to breath after a relatively harder year. I’ve gotten a bunch of reading done—some of it unexpected, all of it overdue. That’s been shaping what’s on my mind, as it does. What I’m studying and so on. Music has been on my mind, in my head. I’ve been slowly re-teaching myself piano—or I’m aiming to, at least. For about the past month I’ve been recording little sounds on my phone, really casually. Most are from when I was back in Virginia for the new year: just like, birds, squirrels, church bells, passing cars, that kind of stuff. I have about a dozen or so, like, minute long voice memos on my phone right now. I couldn’t really tell you what the impulse behind that is—you know, is it sonic? Is it archival? But it is going on. I had the day off from work today, so I spent most of it watching Fred Moten lectures and interviews with Greta Gerwig on YouTube while I cleaned my room. Both of them are on my mind a lot, too.
LT: You’re definitely keeping yourself occupied with all kinds of creative sources! I love that you’re archiving these small moments of sound in your daily life, which doesn’t surprise me given the sonic quality of your work.
Let’s start with the “from Reconstructions” series, after which the chapbook is named. How did the idea for this longform poem begin? Why did you decide to share excerpts in this chap, and not the poem in its entirety?
BT: I’d love to talk about this, yeah. I knew for a while, as I was working on the poems that this chapbook emerged from, that I had this growing heap of fragments, sounds, lines, that seemed to me to want to exist in a kind of longer form space. I didn’t have a sense of really what that was, but I started cobbling together the very early parts of Reconstructions on that impulse. A lot of that ended up junked, or recycled into something else. I think I was writing “Reconstructions” poems for about a year before I had an idea of what they were doing. I found myself returning a lot to Jose Esteban Muñoz’s book Cruising Utopia, and C.D. Wright’s poem Deepstep Come Shining. There was something I think is really ecstatic in the way Wright is looking in that poem: an attention to the practice of looking alongside an attention to what is being looked at.
A lot of the “Reconstructions” fragments ended up coming out of a road trip that my mom and I took from Atlanta to Nashville, and sort of down through Alabama to see family and folks—it wouldn’t be wrong to call it a road trip poem. And Deepstep was big for that, too. When it comes to how those pieces started to organize, I guess I feel a constant responsibility, just personally, to the work of imagining the next world that we’re fighting for. Even while I accept that it’s a doomed project, right? Not because that next world is not possible, but because capitalism and its attendant antagonisms have so totally enmeshed themselves in our language that to describe a world without them would require a new language. So lacking that, I like to play around the edges. On the porch. That’s where I want the Reconstructions poem(s) to be hanging out, riffing on each other, dwelling.
One way to gesture at that space was to really bring attention to the poems as being in-progress, incomplete, partial. If I put a “from” at the beginning of a poem, what does it tell the reader about how to read the poem? This was something I learned from reading Craig Santos Perez, who does something similar but on a much more interesting and larger scale, in his brilliant from unincorporated territory books. And getting back to Muñoz, right, the idea that “the queer is not yet here.” The poem is not all the way here, either. Opacity, yes, and also an invitation into the project, into study. I would love to see someone else write a poem “from Reconstructions.” I really would! Because the poem in its entirety won’t ever exist. I have excerpts that I don’t plan on publishing, and a few that may show up somewhere down the road, too. And it doesn’t have an order, either. How the pieces are presented in the chapbook is, to me, one among many possible orders or disorders. Which I hope that a reader feels moved to further mess up!
LT: Just for context, the full quote from Muñoz that you’re sharing there is “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.” I love how you’ve intentionally presented the “Reconstructions” series as unfinished, and yet the act of presenting it as excerpted also implies that it is arrived in some other space, or is on its way soon.
I think this idea of poems being unfinished, queerness not being reached yet, is really magnified by the physical environment of these poems. I really admire the way you explore rural queerness throughout this chapbook and balance acknowledging its constraints and also uplifting its beauty. There’s a line in the poem “Asphyxia” that really struck me: “According to my uncle, the word redneck comes / from coal miners in West Virginia who wore blood-red handkerchiefs / around their collars when they shot cops for their right to unionize. / When I say this to the man making an exit of me at the club, he asks/why I care about people who want me dead.” Then later, “show me / the place no one wants me dead & I’ll show you a girl dragging / a door from the water.” Can you talk a bit about how you held this tension when shaping this chap?
BT: Well, first, thank you for such a generous reading of the poems. And I think this is a good question, even though I don’t really have an answer. I think this precise tension is one among many that I feel when I write or talk about the South. I feel it all the time. My friend Zenaida once told me that they “just want to be gay and home at the same time.” I can’t say it any better than that. And it enters into this other degree of complication for me, because my sense of “home” is really troubled. My dad was in the Air Force: I was born in Japan, and my family moved around so much that I never had a firm footing in one place. My mom’s family is all from the same neck of the woods in the Deep South, so that became a kind of rooting for me even as the places I lived would change. The truth of the matter is, I’m not from any one place, not really. I don’t have a hometown. I have a real, bone-deep love for the South as a place I could momentarily convince myself I was from, and be welcomed by. And also, not welcomed by. There’s a good number of my family that I just never came out to. Part of the tension you refer to is that I have clear memories of my cousins calling other boys faggots, and knowing somewhere in my body that they meant me. When I write through memory, or through the landscapes of the parts of the South my family lived, that tension seeps into everything. I don’t know how not to hold it, I guess. Or, to paraphrase Anne Carson, where can I put it down?
And lately, I’ve been thinking about all of this through a lens of writerly responsibility. I want, always, to make sure I’m being responsible with my ghosts: that I’m not using the South, or the people who live there, or its histories of struggle or violence (holding them both together is itself a responsibility and another tension) as an aesthetic prop. What that looks like in practice is something I expect I will constantly be studying, figuring out.
LT: Calling back to the work you’ve been doing recording the sonic minutiae of your day-to-day, this collection strikes me with its emphasis on sound. From the get, you open the first poem “Do You Kiss Your Boyfriend With Those Verbs” with the line, “nothing worth saying stays still long enough to say it.” I just can’t get over this line, not only for the larger statement it makes on the collection’s themes, but also how rich it feels in my mouth when I whisper it under my breath. Can you speak on the considerations you made toward sound and rhythm in this collection, and why that was important to you when writing these poems?
BT: Absolutely, yeah. To talk about this is really mostly to just talk about my taste, I think. Near everything I write gets filtered first through a musical dimension—when I draft poems, or catch those little fragments that eventually become things, it’s often just pure sonic association, play. I’m not very good at any one instrument, but I’ve always wanted to make music. I took piano for a few years as a kid, I did guitar lessons in high school until I wasn’t able to afford it. And I’ve enjoyed messing around with bass guitar for a while now. So the poem can be a place where I can do my version of music-making: stressed beats as percussion, verbs as little brass flares. Not really so codified as that, but do you get what I mean?
I write along to music a lot, I have a lot of notebook pages that are basically a weird phonic translation of all kinds of songs. And it was so much the kind of work I’ve always been drawn to: Sylvia Plath, Shane McCrae, Seamus Heaney, Gertrude Stein—so many. I read them over and over and still feel electrified. For me, often the most surprising or honest or productive leaps in a poem happen when I’m not worrying about things like sense or clarity, when I can pay attention to language as material, instrumentation. There’s a Louis Zukofsky line, “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music,” which seems exactly right. I would get that tattooed on me. So for the kinds of poems I was and am writing, which are very in debt to this ongoing left ‘utopian’ project, I like trying to dig out the music in words that wakes us up to possibility again, that bring attention to what language is really made up of/by/from.
LT: Wow, I love that: “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music.” You absolutely should get that tattooed. I love that you connect the musicality of the chapbook to the project of expanding possibility. This collection to me really seems like an experiment in imagination: in imagining what lies both within and beyond gender. In “from Reconstructions” you affirm, “We are the most possible kind of daughterhood. / I promise.” I’m also thinking of “Spectacular, Spectacular” with the line, “I put on my lover’s dress & it fits me like a renaissance…I don’t have / a lover. Any poem I wear anything gorgeous out of / is a lie. Who would remember me myself otherwise?” There’s something about these poems together that I can’t put my finger on, but I love the way you imagine new queer and trans futures, and yet acknowledge how much of doing so is myth-making out of necessity. Does that make sense? What are your thoughts?
BT: I think you’re right—there is a tension that arises when you read those moments together. That’s not something I had thought about, in this capacity at least, while I was putting the chapbook together. But that’s half the fun—finding all these little things the poems are up to when you’re not looking.
I’m really invested in the form of the palinode. It’s not a form that has any metrical or linguistic constraints—palinodes are, basically, the retraction of a previous statement or stance of the author. Saying “I was wrong,” in whatever form that takes for you. In the medieval period, that often meant being a sort of apology to God for one’s sins—there’s something worth thinking about there, too, in the palinode’s connection to confession. But where the confessional is ostensibly seeking forgiveness, I like the palinode for its vulnerability: it only asks you to admit your own wrongness. I like having to dwell in that space. Not in service to guilt or clemency, but to the affirmation of failure and doubt as really generative modes of thinking.
Which gets back, again, perpetually, to this work of imagination and (queer) utopian thought. In an earlier part of a poem you bring up, the speaker says, “No parking lot, no gas stations.” What would that look like, a world without gas stations and parking lots? What does that preclude, what does that open up as possible? So much of my writing begins in negations like this, and you know, I think a lot of that might be bound up in my deep attachment to surprise in poems, inasmuch as surprise is a revelation of possibility. But another component of it is really political. When I talk about utopias, I don’t mean some configuration of the current order that is more amenable to everyone; every utopia is someone else’s apocalypse. I mean, it’s certainly time for the rich to be apocalypsed. But that’s a whole other set of questions that I’m wrestling with. Anyways. I guess I want to keep fucking up the concept of the myth and the need for it. What does “imagining futures” really mean, what does it look like in lived practice? What’s the poem’s relationship to that practice? I like doubling back, challenging the poem, letting doubt keep my head turned backwards. And all the time I’m asking myself, does this event of language I’m calling a poem or a note or whatever, does this resist its medium’s long, long history of violence?
LT: I’m following you. Yeah, I had to look up what a palinode was when reading “Palinode,” and it’s such an interesting premise. I love that in the middle of that poem you just proclaim, “none of this is tender / don’t believe me.” As a reader there was so much of this collection that I was soaking up and reveling in, but you sprinkle all these calls throughout to question what you’re presenting us.
On that note of tenderness, one of the poems I found so tender in this collection is “Whatever Is Not Prayer,” where you reflect on your grandmother’s own troubled relationship with queerness. There’s a line that says, “Where are you now / to tell me you did not survive / this long for me to touch a man / in public? Shame / is a translation of shame.” Then, later, “Unkie, tell me the moon / cares so much about us / that it has to stop / & start all over again.” I just can’t get over that last line. I feel like this poem is also unique in the collection as being one of the more overtly narrative pieces. What are your thoughts on this poem?
BT: Yeah, yeah—thank you, again. It’s a hell of a poem to talk about. One answer could be a contextualization of my maternal grandmothers, two middle class, white lesbians who lived in southern Alabama and adopted my mom and my aunt in the late 1960s. But truth be told, Levi, as I’ve been introducing these poems to people (and, necessarily, parts of my life), I’m drawn more towards opacity, privacy, limit. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, or what the relationship of opacity—thinking of Edouard Glissant’s work with that term—and tenderness might be. Can you be tender and unknowable? Is there such a thing as an illegible vulnerability? And so on, and so on. The conditions of my mom’s childhood are still a place where I’m going for consolation and study, and may always be. Maybe because that work still feels so present in my every day, I’m hesitant to speak about it outside of poems, still.
But what I think I want to say here is that “Whatever is not prayer” is the closest I’ve ever come to transcribing a prayer. Which, as a sentence, is pretty funny. The title of the very first draft was “I fold my grandmother into godliness & pray towards her.” Later I kind of bucked against that, unsure of what I meant by godliness, by a god-adjacency. The poem still has that kind of supplication-y feel to it, I think, which maybe that contributes to this narrativity? I’m not sure. I’m very interested in poems that orbit around something like a speculative social space, where you can speak to the dead, the divine, or the distant. Carving out a place in language to dwell among the impossible. That’s one definition of a poem that covers a lot of ground, isn’t it? Every time I read that poem out loud I feel like crying. Or sometimes, I do cry. And I know all the words! It’s not like it’s new to me. There are like 200-ish pieces of paper in the world that have that particular arrangement of lines and dots that are part of a system of lines and dots that are thousands of years old. And those are arranged in such a way, contextualized by the language I happen to write in, that every time I move my mouth in the corresponding shapes, and make the corresponding sounds, I am moved to literal tears. If that’s not miraculous, then what’s the point of miracles?
LT: I think that’s a great place for us to wrap up the interview. Can you close us out by sharing some small and big miracles you’re thinking about this week?
BT: Oh, glady! Let’s see, miracles—my neighbors are out cleaning their backyard and listening to jazz, the sky is very clear today. Those are definitely miracles. Today I’m calling three people I love on the phone, and hoping to get around to a few overdue letters to far-away friends. I went to a concert a few days ago for one of my favorite bands, Destroyer. It was a lot of fun, and was a little bit of a reset for my music-brain, which I needed.
I’m thinking about unions, as one of the very few avenues available to workers on a large scale to fight and advocate for each other amidst the atomized hell of capitalism. The basic proposition of a union is that workers can and should have the ability to stand together as one multitudinous force against those who seek to exploit and profit off the work we do. That strikes me as a feeling that is kin to a lot of the art that moves me, too: centering the possibilities and power of togetherness in a real, material way. That’s absolutely miraculous, and I’m really hoping that we see (or are seeing) a resurgent labor movement that can deliver those possibilities to a larger group of working people.
And then, some little reading miracles: I just finished Jenny Offill’s new book, Weather, which is wonderful, and is the kind of book that some people really don’t like and that makes me excited about books all over again. It’s sort of like stargazing, where the author is just laying out all these component parts before you and letting you do some of the work of finding the constellations. Mark Nowak’s book, Social Poetics—everyone should read this book, really. It’s partially a people’s history of writing workshops, and partially an argument for the ongoing necessity of a poetics of, with, and for working class people around the world. Mark’s work for the past thirty odd years in organizing and teaching is nothing short of incredible.
It would be kind of dishonest of me to not talk about Middlemarch, which I read for the first time at the beginning of the year. It’s not usually the kind of book I’m drawn to, but I’m dead serious when I say that it’s probably among my very favorite books. There’s so much there about gender, class, the importance of ordinary people living ordinary, stressful, non-historic lives. It’s just remarkably good, and I think it’s one of those books that really can make you a better person. As far as poems go, I’ve been digging into some of NYRB’s poetry books, which are gorgeous enough as objects, but they’ve quietly been pulling together a really astonishing catalog—currently in awe of Elizabeth Willis’s Alive, and a selection of the Russian futurist Alexander Vvendensky’s poems, An Invitation For Me To Think.
Oh, what else. I’ve been watching a lot of movies. I just saw that new movie from France, Portrait of the Lady on Fire. It’s so good. I like that director a lot, Celine Sciamma, and I think it’s my favorite of her work. There’s this line that’s been stuck in my head since I saw it, where the two women leads are finally about to have sex with each other, and one of them asks,
“Do all lovers feel as though they’re inventing something?” For queer people, I have to think the answer is yes.