On Thursday, Sept. 13, the critically acclaimed SF State Poetry Center hosted Whiting Award 2018 recipients, Brontez Purnell, and Tommy Pico, both prolific writers within contemporary LGBTQ+ spoken word and performance.
Purnell, originally from Alabama, has been performing and writing in the Bay Area for over ten years. He is the frontman of the local indie band The Young Lovers, founder of the queer zine Fag School and the founder of his own dance company the Brontez Purnell Dance Company. The winner of the 2018 Whiting Award for Fiction, has also penned two published novels and has a few more books on the way.
Purnell produces raunchy, unapologetic and honest material. Confidently commanding the room, dressed in a white Red Aunts band tee, white suspenders and dyed hair, one half of his head bleached white, the other, a bright blue. Purnell performed original short stories and excerpts from his novel, “Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger.” He effortlessly worked with the audience with his charm and humor, while candidly talking about his experience as a gay black man, his first time shooting unicorn porn and ex-boyfriends.
“Everyone has always been like, ‘Oh Brontez, you’re a poet!’ and I have never, ever called myself that. In my head, I write songs. When I’m writing, I’m only concerned about telling the story. I write music because that’s what I really want to be, a cheesy poet,” said Purnell. “Because my dad was like ‘love was invented so that people could sell poems.’”
Thursday night’s second performer, Pico, is a queer Native American poet, who grew up on the Viejas Indian reservation, east of San Diego. Pico’s experiences of growing up there and the hardships of being part of an indigenous community have greatly influenced Pico’s writing.
He curates a reading series in Brooklyn, New York called “Poets with Attitudes,” is the co-host of the podcast “Food 4 Thot”, has published four poetry books and is the winner of several poetic accolades.
Pico speaks heavily of this time living on a reservation where the “average age to die is 40.7,” death has a heavy influence on his work. Having lost several family members throughout his lifetime, Pico considers himself “immune” to grief.
Pico spoke almost in rhythm with his words, changing the pitch of his voice to emphasize the intended pungency of certain jabs or attitudes present in his poetry, something he learned from his vocal coach. With heavy use of text language, he finds contemporary ways to elaborate on what he’s feeling and fighting within himself. Exuding sass in his all-black ensemble, that features a Sade tour tee and cut off jean shorts, Pico powerfully holds everyone’s attention at the front of the room.
“Sometimes I feel like I kind of relive old, bad stuff, it doesn’t always feel great, but some stuff does. It feels great to shout, it really does,” said Pico when asked by an audience member if he finds poetry to be therapeutic.
Both writers are masters of their voice. Knowing how to manipulate it into what they think and feel in their everyday lives as gay men and artists.
“For me, I’m really interested in what some of the younger writers are doing. Because there’s a lot of activity, a lot of vitality in what they’re doing. Both these guys are incredibly prolific writers, I mean they’re just at it and totally into it right now.” said Steve Dickison, the director of the Poetry Center and creative writing professor at SF State, when asked about the significance this event held for the Poetry Center.
To Dickinson, poetry can be used as an active outreach to greater connect the diversity of students and faculty on the campus.
“There’s kind of a lot of direct communication in a lot of ways… and the musical aspect of poetic language I think is something that draws people in,” said Dickison.