Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Every few weeks I bike from my place in San Francisco’s Mission District to the Castro and pay a visit to Bruce Boone. Four decades ago, Boone and Robert (Bob) Glück founded New Narrative, a literary movement that collapses high and low culture while foregrounding everyday gay life and gossip. Breathless from my ride and the uphill walk, I always wonder which Bruce will answer the door. He’s almost eighty years old and has done it all. I might hang with Zen Bruce, Alien Bruce, Sub/Dom Bruce, Doomsday Bruce, not to mention the Bruces who precede our friendship but reappear in glimpses: Hippie Bruce, Marxist Bruce, and so forth. Some days they all appear at once.
The following conversation is excerpted from an afternoon in Bruce’s drawing room when a selection of his writings was undergoing final edits. The resulting book, Bruce Boone Dismembered: Poems, Stories, and Essays, edited by Rob Halpern, will be published by Nightboat Books this spring. Though Bruce candidly appraised his oeuvre, he was more eager to share recent epiphanies concerning nondualism, ecological and societal collapse, and how he fast-tracked enlightenment by hiring Steve, a dom.
Evan Kennedy Why the title Bruce Boone Dismembered?
Bruce Boone It’s a very Bataillean title. It alludes to the name of his secret society, Acéphale, which means “headless.” Perhaps it also invokes the depersonalized state you seek when sitting in Buddhist meditation. The dismemberment indicates no more head, no more personality, no more selfness. I’ve been through Catholicism, existentialism, feminism, Marxism, Buddhism—I’ve done it all. I devoted a lot of energy to these -isms, using them as telescopes to examine and scrutinize the world. They didn’t help much.
EK Rob Halpern came over to your place some years ago, and there were pages and pages of original texts underneath your couch, disorganized and not even bound. So there was the issue of assembling the manuscript for Dismembered. How does your approach to writing relate to fragmentation and dismemberment?
BB I used to say—and it sounds kind of hokey—that I don’t write for an audience or for ambition but for God. But I don’t believe in any god anymore, so I’m writing for some principle of reality and the future. I always thought I was the canary in the coalmine. With climate change, I thought I would provide a map that could help in the misery that’s coming.
EK But you had little motivation in preparing the material for publication. How were they supposed to find it?
BB On some level I didn’t care. I was writing for eternity, emptiness, God. I didn’t like ambition, careerism, writing for money, kissing ass to get published, and all those things. That ruins your writing and causes blindness in your soul. So I thought that if the alternative is to throw it under the couch, that’s what I’ll do.
EK There’s a quote from a talk you gave on negativity in 1985 that seems relevant to your current thinking: “God maybe, but not so separated, more like childhood—is reaching down thru a hole in the sky to pick up these things, the corals and whatnot, and drag them up thru that hole to another place that must be supposed, tho invisible.”
BB Maybe that’s the vatic thing. I really identify with the Oracle of Delphi. I’m talking more about Greek vatic, which is different from Hebrew prophetic. The predictive aspect in Hebrew prophesy was minimal. It was really about ranting against injustice and once again telling the Hebrew people, “The Lord does not care about your fucking sacrifices. You should give to the poor, and take care of other people in society.” Delphi was different. It was technically about the future, but underneath that, it was about making contact with eternity. Plutarch says that the priestesses of Apollo, called the Pythia, had very short lives because Apollo rode them. They sometimes had to be dragged to the tripod, because it took so much out of them physically that they were wrecks and died early. I think that if you’re going to write well, you have to prepare to suffer something. If you’re a real writer, there’s a power that takes over you.
EK What surprised me about an early draft of Bruce Boone Dismembered was that AIDS is never mentioned.
BB The great suffering in the community was captured perfectly in Kevin Killian’s Argento Series. You can’t do better than that. I was with Jamie [Holley] during much of that time, and I was at the Hartford Street Zen Center in the Castro district. Half of the practice was sitting meditation and the other half was helping people die, cleaning out their shit, bringing them ice cream, and talking to them in their despair. My whole focus was on them.
EK How did AIDS impact your Buddhist practice?
BB The first thing about Buddhism is to accept impermanence and the reality of constant change and death. You’re just this flippy moment that’s going to be extinguished. So people were being extinguished. Did that deepen my practice? Yes. I am a being toward death. I am a flash in the pan. I’m a delusion. As Jamie used to say, “Honey, in a hundred years, who’s going to remember us?” My work might be read for a hundred years if there’s still people on the planet, but ultimately, your writing dies as you die—
EK Jamie’s take on it didn’t insult you?
BB No, because I knew that what eternity or God or emptiness wanted me to do was write. And it didn’t particularly care if it got published. AIDS was the reality of death everywhere—all one’s friends, all the time.
EK So AIDS impacted your writing obliquely in this idea of negativity?
BB Yeah. Everything’s temporary. Here today, gone tomorrow.
EK I have another quote from your negativity talk: “Writers, let your language be grounded in a more material degree of negativity. The slightest resistance to accepting negativity, annihilation, extinction, etcetera, halts the intensity or flow of aggression that is required to condemn and even extirpate our inclination to maintain normal, received social pretenses instead of subverting them.” That’s a constant concern for you.
BB I’ve always been a kind of loser, an outcast, an alien. I’ve been at the fringes and never wanted to go in. All the societies I’ve seen are wrong. And now I’ve come down to this version of life as hedonism. It should be about pleasure.
EK No… Really?
BB Yes. And there’s never any real deep pleasure without pain. Epicurus said it’s all about pleasure. But although eating is great, sex is better, friendship even better than that, love even better than that, and meditation, together with your friends in the garden, is best of all.
EK That’s quite a different outlook from that of the teenage Bruce who was on track to become a priest. In this statement you just made, you’re brushing aside all spiritual concerns. What would you say to teenage Bruce who might be taking the spiritual side too seriously?
BB I would start with the observation that we’re not a body, and we’re not a mind. We’re a body-mind. They’re inextricable. When I was growing up, my mother would wake me up for 6:30 AM Catholic Mass every day, and we’d have rosary after dinner, and we would fast during Lent. I was a totally devout Catholic. In high school, instead of going to lunch with the other boys, I would go to the chapel and pray to our Lord because that was the most important thing to me—my relationship with God.
EK How solid was your faith?
BB It was rock solid. It wasn’t literal though; I could see that dogmas were just figures of speech and that mysticism was what it was really about.
EK How do you reconcile that with your emphasis on hedonism today?
BB I was being dualistic as a young Catholic, trying to make the mind the place where ecstasy occurs. But it occurs in the body-mind. I’ve been trying to ground the dualism in a nondualism through tantric sexual experiments. There I can feel total mystical peace. I often have a tableau of tapered lights flickering to make a magical atmosphere. I have roses and a Mozart oboe concerto playing perhaps.
EK Sounds like mass.
BB It’s close to holy mass. And I’m the host to be eaten.
EK This interplay between spirituality and sexuality is not an issue for you?
BB It was an issue when I was a Catholic because I was told that there’s no spirituality except in your soul—certainly not in your body or in your sex. Bataille was a big light that went off for me: your body is a vehicle for mysticism, and your body is most animalistic when you’re howling out in screams of pleasure and pain. I’d like to think that if you’re really grounded in nondualism, you are a body-mind. I’ve been with Steve, a dom, for five years, and there’s been a lot of examination of what’s happening on both sides, and especially on mine, wanting to see the spiritual dimensions of this.
EK You say that Century of Clouds [Bruce’s most well-known work, a novel from 1980] was written in a spirit of optimism, and now you’re much more pessimistic.
BB When you’re young, you’re optimistic. As you get older, you have more experiences and begin to see reality as it is: you’re closer to your own death.
EK You had a falling out with Marxism and literary theory.
BB The only reason I ever liked literary theory was as a way to legitimize our voices. My and Bob [Glück]’s plan was to talk about gay people—who had never been talked about in our lives—sexually, personally, in communities. To be accepted by serious people as serious writers, our writing had to go beyond the gay subject matter. I basically spent graduate school from MA to PhD reading structuralist and postmodern texts. And then Bob and I were going to put together a form of gay writing at the highest level, once we had the right cultural or conceptual apparatus which, in those days at least, was legitimizing.
EK Today it’s no longer necessary.
BB It’s not necessary for my writing or for Bob’s or for New Narrative.
EK How did you discover the work of Frank O’Hara?
BB I knew this straight guy who seemed to have some money and never did anything but read books. He took me to City Lights once. In the basement was Lunch Poems. He said, “Buy this! It’s important!” I got it, and it was a lightning bolt of revelation. You could write poetry like this? Yes! And it can be about sex and homos and friends, and it can be colloquial and joyful and integrate popular culture—all this stuff that still excites me.
EK Was there anybody writing at the time who supported you and these concerns?
BB I used to really admire Allen Ginsberg.
I have slightly different feelings now—there were things that I loved, and then there was junk. He was such a great teacher to young hippies; he would fill Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley with 60,000 kids. He introduced us to serious leftist politics and Marxism, Buddhism, all of Eastern philosophy and religion, and we just hung on every word.
EK What about Jack Spicer?
BB In terms of style, I was most influenced by O’Hara. In terms of metaphysics or ontology, the other world, the archons, the mothership, aliens, that’s all from Spicer. I saw that he was absolutely serious about his other world and that to reach any truth, you had to break up the illusions of this world. The other world was negativity, dead people.
EK Did that terrify you?
EK The despair of Spicer?
BB I don’t think of negativity as despair. You know how in the Old Testament, they talk about being in awe of God? The only way you can approach anything ultimate is with a spirit of fear and trembling because it is what is real, and you’re not. That’s the same feeling I had on DMT—of everything being these high-voltage lines of ultimate power. I was trembling as I was receiving this because it was all powerful.
EK This is an awareness that O’Hara lacks. You never felt the demons that O’Hara or Spicer felt? The self-destruction, the alcoholism…
BB No. I wasn’t addicted to anything. The addictions would’ve distracted from the main thing: keeping my eye on the prize, and the prize was some sort of mysticism.
EK What was your day-to-day like in the ’70s? Were you in this apartment?
BB No, I was over in an attic in Noe Valley that Bob found for me. It was totally low rent. I’d usually sleep late, wake up hungover, get some coffee, then start writing or reading and do that for most of the day, go out to get some groceries, or go to Bob’s house and talk with him, or maybe there was a reading at Small Press Traffic or a party at Kevin’s. But basically my job was to get up to read in order to write intelligently, and then to write. That was my life.
EK There are a lot of younger writers who admire you and the New Narrative community. What are your insights about maintaining those friendships in a literary coterie for so long?
BB It was an intense atmosphere where deep bonds were formed. We were aware that we were doing something different and important, even if it wasn’t going to sell in New York, and we weren’t going to be famous. In the process, everyone made missteps in friendship. In every long-term relation, there are some speed bumps. If friendship is important to you, and for me it is, you’ve got to find ways to accommodate each other and resolve disputes.
EK What are the tactics to maintain a literary friendship?
BB With Bob, there was one big break. I understood that to be back with Bob would not be instantaneous—it took a couple of months. With every human being, there are limitations. After all, you’re only a facet of the jewel of God, and you have boundaries in your relation with another facet. So I asked what can I do with Bob and what can’t I do with Bob because it’ll be too offensive? I know that Bob did the same thing with regard to me. I have foibles and blind spots, and so does every other person.
EK You and Bob found your own way as writers together, yet you maintained a friendship past that. I don’t imagine that you two are still engaging each other on the basis of your writing.
BB No. We don’t talk about our writing. At this point, Bob is like family. The friendship passed into a kinship. What we talk about is—
BB Yes, a lot of griping. We bitch about different people.
EK About whom?
BB Well, of course other writers. What were you thinking? Food is big, so we go into very fine distinctions. But I could also sit there and not even talk to him. It would be okay.
EK It seems like Bob had input while you were writing Century of Clouds.
BB Yeah. And I did with his Jack the Modernist. And we did with each other for La Fontaine. But I am sworn under oath not to reveal who leant what line to whom, or who suggested which idea. My lips are sealed.
EK Could you talk a bit more about the optimism of Century of Clouds?
BB When I started writing, I thought it would be great to be a writer because they’re saints. In order to write this beautiful stuff, how could you not be one of the holiest people ever? I’ve learned, to my sorrow, that we are not any different from other human beings—we have little glimpses of light, but we act like pigs. Simon recently brought up The Trial by Kafka and that parable “Before the Law.” There is a law, and this guy spends his life waiting for the gatekeeper to let him in, and then as the guy dies, the gatekeeper says, “This door was made only for you. Now I’m going to close it.” Well, that doesn’t mean that there’s no law. With Kafka, law takes on a Jewish dimension with Torah, which isn’t like civil law or Roman law. It’s like divinity. Compare that to The Castle, where the protagonist, K., spends all his time trying to gain access to the Castle. And finally, after he makes all these payoffs and allows this woman connected to the authorities to seduce him, the answer is handed down from the Castle: You are accepted—provisionally. Provisionally?! So there is a castle; there is a messiah; there is a law; there is light in the universe, only it may be closed, to you and everyone.
EK “There is hope, but not for us,” Kafka writes.
BB As I get older, my view of human nature isn’t exactly filled with admiration. I think people will always be mean to outsiders, however they define them. It will never stop. Outsider communities may have periods of respite, but ultimately people don’t like those who are different from them. I know I’m supposed to be more optimistic, but I can’t be. Take right now. I see kids in the Castro taking for granted their entitlement to go have sex whenever they want and not be hurt.
EK Do you think they need an awareness of history or some conception that things could get worse?
BB I’m afraid that things are going to regress. Look, we’re on the verge of Roe v. Wade being overturned. Brown v. Board of Education has had major setbacks. Why would gays be allowed to continue to be regular people and not be oppressed like in the ’50s and lead tormented lives that are filled with fear and whatnot? I think that’s the norm in this country. San Francisco is an exception.
EK Recently you acknowledged to me that your pessimism might go hand in hand with confronting your mortality, but it’s also reflected in your negativity lecture from ’84. You’re now approaching eighty. When I first met you in 2010, you predicted you had five more years to live.
BB Well, I’m also a drama queen. There’s that famous Antonio Gramsci slogan, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” That’s what I recommend. You can’t not try—especially if you’re under thirty or forty—to do everything you can to mitigate or prevent the horrible things that are coming. You’re not a human being if you’re not trying to mitigate that, both for yourself and for others.
EK You’re certain that horrible things are coming.
BB Yeah. Yeah.
EK For everyone.
BB Yeah. I kind of see the end of the past few thousand years of civilization. There might be people left living in the Andes and a few in some Mississippi swamps, but—
EK What leads you to that conclusion?
BB Reading the New York Times faithfully. Every single article on ecology or climate change is just horrifying. “Last time we wrote on this, the scientists said it won’t happen for another 120 years. Now they say it’s going to be twenty years.” And then you read the next one, and it says, “Oh, now it’s going to happen in five years.” Then they say, “It’s happening right now in Bangladesh…”
EK What about societal concerns?
BB I don’t understand the global shift toward authoritarianism, but it’s there. I don’t think anybody fully understands where it’s coming from. All I can think of is that, in some way, things went wrong in the Enlightenment era. Essentially, the Enlightenment left out the dark side. And authoritarianism gives you a bit of the dark side, in the form of a leader you can blindly follow. There’s an element of masochism in giving your all for some leader or principle or government or abstraction. It’s a dark thing. Why didn’t the Enlightenment and democracy integrate ways of expressing darkness? Excluding it is dualistic. Dark and light are the same thing—one becomes the other.
EK What’s your current writing practice like?
BB I’m going back to some of the hundreds of texts on my computer that I never finished or was too sloppy about and trying to retrieve enough to make a book. There are slivers of gold in there, I think, so I’m willing to do the hard work of editing—which I don’t like because I’m lazy. That’s my new task, besides working on a 600-page poem, WALLPAPER, as well as Dismembered, as well as some interviews, and other stuff.
EK How is WALLPAPER—a sci-fi inflected, hallucinatory valentine to Steve—different from what you set out to do with New Narrative?
BB With New Narrative, we set out to present gay sex in the context of gay life in a gay community because it was all in the shadows. It wasn’t very explicit, we thought. Many people over different generations wrote about it. And at some point in time, before I got to WALLPAPER, it seemed to me that the actual animal realities, especially related to domination and submission in sex, were blown off as a joke or were left undescribed, and it was all clinical. The real heart of it, which was about power, was not presented honestly.
EK Not even in “David’s Charm” [a short text from Boone’s Carmen, an abandoned novel]?
BB “David’s Charm” was all about pal sex, two pals fooling around in the bathhouse. There’s an image of me lighting up like a Christmas tree and some other thing of glowing. The piece was all spiritualized in a dualistic way. It didn’t reflect what I wanted to say later on about gay sex, my feelings around power. That’s what ought to be addressed. As everybody from Foucault on—and before him Bataille—noticed philosophically, if you write about sex in literature, you better get some of that in!
EK So you don’t think there’s emotional openness in early New Narrative writing? Is that a fault of the first generation?
BB Yeah, maybe because it was too dangerous to get beyond a jokey manner.
EK Were you trying to compensate for internalized homophobia with theory?
BB I don’t think so. From a historical perspective, even doing what we did was such an advanced step. It was what could be done at that time; other things had to happen before we could go deeper.
EK Was there sex writing that influenced New Narrative initially?
BB I don’t think so. New Narrative was the ideal of the everyday gay life: the gay guy in his gay community with his gay friends and his gay lovers. It turned out to be more of an effort to legitimize a gay society so that sex could be part of it.
I remember I wanted people to think I was equally top and bottom. But when I went to the baths, I’d be positively a slave. It was all behind closed doors, where nobody would ever know about it. And that stayed in my head as I’m not really telling the truth about who I really am and what my real desires are.
EK Whereas WALLPAPER accomplishes that?
BB I hope so. Because if you really look at it, the exciting, thrilling thing in sex is for one person, the subject, to reduce another person to an object, to relieve them of their personhood. There are various ways of doing that—through pain, humiliation, degradation even. I guess most people assume, “Well, pain—we understand that there’s S/M out there, and some people do that. My wife and I don’t do that, but some people do, and we accept it, and it’s part of life. But degradation, no, because that’s killing the spirit.” Well, maybe and maybe not. It depends on the case. If it really does kill the spirit, it’s wrong. But you can also diminish somebody into a pure object in a way that’s liberating to them.
EK According to their volition.
BB Yeah. Consensually. They enjoy being turned into an object. And why would one enjoy being turned into an object? What’s exciting about that?
EK You’re not responsible for doing anything; you’re given over to a higher power.
BB Yeah. For me, the appeal of being a bottom is like, “Oh my God, at last, I don’t have to decide anything. I don’t have to do any of the heavy lifting.”
EK So you’re not topping from the bottom?
BB No, no. Steve wouldn’t allow it anyway. At the first signs, he’d shut that down immediately! Getting into sex with Steve has really been learning slowly how to recognize, name, and then perform my true desires and not be in denial or cover them up with, say, a joke. In the very beginning with him, I would stop partway and try to make a joke or something. It took me a while to realize I was putting up a barrier against my total acceptance of his dominating me and making me an object and therefore giving me the incredible relief of having no responsibility other than just doing what he tells me to do. That for me is the great pleasure of the object or bottom or whatever you want to call it.
EK Isn’t there some shame one needs to get over?
BB Him or me?
BB Yes, because I’m giving up my humanity. The top or dom remains fully human—a nasty human, but a human—and is fully possessed by the faculty of subjectivity, using his will to make something happen.
The bottom is inhuman, a thing. The top, on the other hand, can only participate in inhumanness in an indirect manner through the medium of his bottom, watching the expression. The top can only rehearse his own thingness or death, you might say. That’s what it comes down to: to become a thing is to die, as a human.
EK What about the fear of death?
BB In sex, it’s really the attraction to death, to suffering, to thingness. Why would one seek death? Well, now we’re getting into my mystical take on sexuality. It’s like a carry-through from sitting meditation and the ecstasy of letting go of the self. To lose one’s humanity is to lose oneself, and death is the literal continuation of that.
EK You wrote WALLPAPER to express that vulnerability.
BB I wrote that to express sexual vulnerability through glimpses of my being feminized and also, going back to the mystical concept of sexual love, to convey that as a cosmic mysticism. References to the planets, stars, archons, the mothership make that explicit. You know, Steve’s leg will go through the mothership window while at the same time, in sex, the aliens are descending upon me, and everything merges together in this mystical unity.
EK How would you hope for a writer in their twenties to advance the books of the New Narrative movement?
BB I hope there are at least a few books from New Narrative that people will love and just read for pleasure. Argento Series has got to be one—nobody could be unmoved. When Kevin read it for the first time, I was bawling like a baby. It’s so beautiful and true and ripe. I will not mention any works of my own out of false modesty.
EK There were a bunch of young people at the recent New Narrative conference. Can you anticipate a direction they might go in?
BB In the same way that Frank O’Hara could not have foreseen the ways in which he influenced me and Bob, there’s probably somebody in their twenties who will like something about my writing, and I will have no idea what it is. If I were to guess, I’d say, “Oh, you like the politics, don’t you? Or you like the sex…” And they’d say, “No, it’s this,” and it would totally blow me away, because how could I have seen that?
Evan Kennedy is a poet and bicyclist from San Francisco. He is the author of The Sissies (Futurepoem, 2016), Terra Firmament, Jerusalem Notebook, Shoo-Ins to Ruin, and Us Them Poems.
Originally published in
This issue features interviews with Chitra Ganesh, Tania Cypriano, Charles Atlas, Netta Yerushalmy, Vi Khi Nao, Amani Al-Thuwaini, Andrea Hasler, and Bruce Boone, as well as fiction from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Justin Taylor, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, and Lee Relvas, and poetry from Shuzo Takiguchi and Bruce Boone.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.