C-Beams Glittering in the Dark: A Conversation with Cooper Lee Bombardier

Rumpus: That brings to mind how rich with metaphor Pass With Care feels. In context, Bombardier, a visual artist and writer now living in Nova Scotia, is asking to be seen in a society that expects transgender men like him to blend into the background. The piece had (and probably still has) the potential to go off the rails at any point, and for me that was the part that was most exciting about writing it. Is that a trans story? This feels extra poignant to think about in this present moment. In what ways is sculpting a piece of writing different from, or the same as, sculpting proper? Instead of going further away from myself into the research and the Hanford archives—I had even signed up to take a tour of the Reservation, which is limited in number of visitors and available dates and had a long waitlist—I moved closer to myself, and the more of my own story and self that I wove into the piece, the more it made sense, to me, at least. I’ve always been a visual learner and drawn to image. What this simple moment of your day symbolized for that person! It’s like this person could never imagine being truly themselves while doing something as perfunctory as eating a sandwich! And all of these dust motes of experience are ephemeral, meant to be lost, and the ones that matter most are perhaps the ones we would expect if we were to imagine in advance our own moment on the roof in the rain. On the craft side, though, does that ever feel like a high-wire act? Nobody liked the piece, except perhaps my friend and cohort member Sophia Shalmiyev, who totally gets the draw toward fragmentary work, as evidenced in her brilliant memoir Mother Winter. Rumpus: Several of the essays in Pass With Care do seem to be about managing or surviving that projection. I get the same feeling from many of the essays in Pass With Care. I tend to write and sit with things for a long time before they make it onto a published page. It’s definitely not a head-on narrative piece at all, and it’s not for everyone, I suppose, but it might be the piece in the book I am most proud of. But what does it mean to age in a trans body? We want to be able to tell our version. It might have to do with growing up without seeing yourself reflected by anyone around you, or the culture telling you you’re an aberration, something that does not deserve to live. I like what you say about the garden of these experiences: The events of one’s life can seem so random, and the progression of events seem as if by chance, but the older I get, it reminds me of something Joseph Campbell said in his interviews with Bill Moyers about—and I paraphrase—how one can look back and suddenly it all seems as if it was by design. I’m writing about shit that happened when I was twenty-one years old and it is still hard. ***
Photograph of Cooper Lee Bombardier courtesy of Cooper Lee Bomardier. Bombardier: Roy Batty and the other replicants are so trans, right? Whether it’s a splinter or an abused dog or a wounded pigeon in the rafters of a metal shop, you’re often constructing a bountiful metaphorical tableau for masculinity, at least as you make sense of it. I think there is a lot of curiosity about our bodies, both welcome and unwelcome, and we all get to decide how much of our bodies and our relationship to them we wish to share. I’ve had the real experience of meeting the fists of total strangers for being visible. I remember watching his canvas in awe as these seemingly disparate brushstrokes began adding up to something. Are you writing more in the moment or do you allow a lag time? For example, I have noticed some male friends react to the fact that I don’t have what, in their eyes, reads as “a real job.” I mean, currently I am not as surrounded by artists and writers as I have normally been in my adult life, but I’ve noticed that the idea that I write for a living, and this means that I teach and write and edit and freelance, carries an instability to it that, as trans, queer, and an artist, feels quite normal for me. It is really easy to get caught up in weird projections about the finished work with writing while forgetting to just be in the process, and the way out is often through. There’s a way in which the tangible manipulation of materials in visual art is a great thing for me to remember when I am writing, and how the process of visual work manifests, as well. The first memoir I started writing, which is still in progress, had nothing to directly do with trans identity, because it was from a time before I had that language or that knowledge. Rumpus: In college, briefly, I worked as a personal assistant for a portrait painter. Bombardier: Wow, the sandwich thing: Holy shit! I put out stuff now that I’ve processed through the work, and in my life, and with my inner circle, and that tends to give me the distance I need to see both myself as implicated in the moments I am writing about but also the bigger themes or music of a subject. When writing, do you find yourself anticipating what non-trans readers might be looking for and consciously delivering something different instead? Where do we locate meaning? Bombardier: Through this book, I am intertwining the “becoming” of a writer as the primary transition. Bombardier: I haven’t been making much visual work in the past few years because I have been so focused on my writing. When I first started to really write, even though it is something I have always done, I was writing for the stage, for spoken word. Cooper Lee Bombardier: Yes, I think that there’s perhaps an imagined limit on what constitutes a trans story, and maybe “after” transition, that should be all we have to say, or to contribute. Like Eileen Myles says in Chelsea Girls, “It’s lonely to be alive and never know the whole story… I would like to tell everything once, just my part, because this is my life, not yours.” The flip side is that when you are visible, people can project their shit on to you. I do so much thinking through the writing process and for me that process now entails a whole lot of volume, and then a whole lot of revising and rewriting and editing and repurposing. More from this author → In another piece, “Manhood Is Boring,” you visit the famous “tears in rain” monologue from Blade Runner, in which the dying replicant Roy Batty waxes poetic about all the things he’s seen, most famously, “C-beams glitter[ing] in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.” It’s a monologue about feeling overwhelmed by sheer experience and so it has understandably resonated with a lot of trans folks. I might not be quite to the age and wisdom of Campbell when he made that remark, but I am much more in a place where I can see the cause and effect that puts me exactly here, in this moment. I talked to Bombardier about the state of transgender memoir, sculpting, and the Blade Runner replicant Roy Batty, who also did not want to disappear. Bombardier: The alligator piece [“Half As Sensitive”] was such a weirdo obsession piece that nobody seemed to like or get from the very first draft. Bombardier: Perhaps the difficulty in wanting to be visible lies in the inability to control the gaze. And yes, metaphor has a significant role in how I have come to understand myself, not only in terms of male identity but also in terms of how it was I came to be the adult I was at the doorstep of medical transition at the age of thirty-three. At first, I thought it would become the basis for a more journalistic long-form piece on the animal experiments at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. To annihilate that silence I was talking about with the propulsion of words from my mouth on a stage. Bombardier: That’s such a great question. I even tracked down the lead scientist for the Experimental Animal Farm and talked with him on the phone. For example, I’ll show my creative writing students videos of a painter working, often sped up, like folks who make a small painting every day and post their process videos to YouTube or whatever. That can be a lot to bear. I still will respond to things with immediacy in writing, but that writing is rarely shared. That need to be heard. When I think about a lot of the work that I performed as spoken word or published in my zines, it is a little bit cringe-y because it was so fucking raw. Right now, I am aching with being divided from my blood family by international borders that cannot be crossed, and yearning to gather my friends who are scattered all across North America. That need to say. Metaphor is functioning for me as visual, intuitive, resonant, perhaps even parasympathetic. C-Beams Glittering in the Dark: A Conversation with Cooper Lee Bombardier

By Samantha Allen
May 22nd, 2020

“I don’t want to disappear,” Cooper Lee Bombardier tells an imagined interlocutor at the end of an early essay in Pass With Care: Memoirs, his luminous first book, which collects previously published and original works into a single stirring volume. But instead of coalescing around this more research and report approach, the more I worked on the piece the more it wanted to spiral outward into fragments perhaps only tangentially connected by a slight magnetic pull. There’s this beautiful slowness of empathy. Perhaps more importantly I can see the major themes that have stayed constant and connected over the various incarnations and points of my life even if I was not able to see them in the moment. I learn by doing it. That other memoir I mentioned? But for many of us, it has brought out a desire to see and be seen—in short, a desire to live. There was no pathway in doing it. They don’t chuck the whole canvas or panel. I hope that the utility of metaphor, at least in my book, is to mirror to a reader that their lives are an ongoing freight train of transitions, up until the final one of death, just like mine. I had many experiences of physical harm and bullying growing up, and I understood on some intrinsic level that to push against the silence that accompanied those moments would be to put myself at further risk. Rumpus: “The Conversation” ends with that moving declaration, which seems apropos here: “I don’t want to disappear.” The COVID-19 pandemic, on one hand, is terrifying because it reminds us that we will all go the way of Roy Batty. The flow state for me of visual art is really different and transports me in a completely different way than writing. In that moment on the roof in the deluge, Deckard has this epiphany that his nemesis, this person he hunted and so feared, has had an experience of consciousness that, like his own, will disappear. I’ll think, “Okay, how is he going to tie together a nuclear reactor, a security guard gig, and irradiated alligators?” And then you do, brilliantly! And the failures are more instructive perhaps than the successes. ***
The Rumpus: By exploring life after transition in Pass With Care, do you feel as though you are writing against a grain that expects trans authors like you (and me) to be forever frozen in place, post-transition but not too post-transition? Rumpus: How would you say that history with visual art has informed your writing? What comes up for me these days around “gender” is so much more subtle and entrenched. Why might it be hard for writers who ostensibly share our lives as a profession, to claim that space of wanting to be visible, of not wanting to, as you put it, disappear? And yet, for someone of my age and male, it goes against the grain of what might constitute “normal” in late-stage capitalist masculinity. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Tumblr (Opens in new window)

Samantha Allen is the author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States and Love & Estrogen. In the pages of Pass With Care, Bombardier wrestles with those questions through kaleidoscopically layered essays, ruminating on the loneliness, the longing for community, and the gritty lessons that have accompanied his particular experience of transmasculine middle age. We go along with you on a childhood bike ride instead of, say, standing next to you before the mirror for an early moment of self-hatred. As you’ve aged and grown as a creator, do you feel “overwhelmed” by experiences, or do you feel more capable of curating them in your writing, like, say, a gardener? It’s more of a trance state when I’m really dug into a visual work. Deckard sees that Batty is not just one thing, and in turn, realizes that he is not just one thing either; he’s not solely the idea of a man he’s bought into. They redirect and move on. What does it mean to be a neighbor, wrapped up in an N95 mask, shopping for your neighbors? To me, Batty’s final soliloquy is about owning what has been most important to you, even if it has little to do with what the culture that made you says should be most meaningful to you. (I have had some confusing conversations with strangers who see me as an openly transgender woman doing something as banal as eating a sandwich and all of a sudden they’re unlocking something about themselves.) And yet, writing from a place of immediate reaction to that projection can be tough, because the output feels angsty and defensive. My first creative love was visual art: drawing and painting primarily, though I have worked with film, sculpture, printmaking, and blacksmithing, too. For me, the images of the operating room or the mirror moment you describe—that quintessential Crying Game scene, right?—might capture less about how I inhabit this body than a lovingly cobbled-together bicycle. But that plea is all the more powerful because publishers and outlets alike tend to privilege the more eye-catching experiences of transitioning and newly transitioned transgender people, ignoring much of what comes afterward. Rumpus: It’s telling, then, that Pass With Care handles some of those “traditional” or expected beats of a trans story more circumspectly: We get scars instead of a vignette on surgery. I think what’s become most important to me in the last few years is to go deep and really see the people I’m closest to, and to push past my own terror of truly being seen. Not just as authors but just as trans people moving through the world, our bodies are often canvases that people project onto. From that perspective, Pass With Care is a gorgeously rendered response to what one might call the “Now what?” question: After an experience as metamorphic and all-consuming as a gender transition, what happens next? Rumpus: Part of what I love about it, and about so many of the other essays in Pass With Care, is how fecund it feels, how dense with meaning. I’m not an author who will be responding to everything with the perfect snippet of sass or wisdom on Twitter because I need to sit with things and get quiet with them to figure out what I think and feel outside of the noise of the crowd. We all want to be able to live, at least for a moment, as free. When a painter makes a mark that they aren’t satisfied with, they often just paint over it and keep going. I have, however, been really longing to make some visual work again. Who do we become after that becoming? That to survive you need to hide. Metaphor is generative for writers more broadly, of course, but I wonder if it serves a special function when it comes to making sense of something as complex as gender? This is super useful. So, in terms of writing it, and workshopping parts of it, I have had the sense from non-trans readers that its exploration of loss is less interesting than the fact that the narrator might later become someone who identifies as trans. I think I understand that thirst to “see” our bodies on the page, but my whole life I’ve had to navigate the spots where I am invisible versus the ones where I’ve been hyper-visible, like running through a moonlit forest, and the page is a place where I get to absolutely control the aperture. I’d started the piece while in my final MFA workshop. It was the ’90s, right? Find her on Twitter at @SLAwrites.