Brian Broome on Gwendolyn Brooks, Giving Everybody the Benefit of the Doubt, and Why He Loves Writing on the Bus
Brian Broome’s triumphant memoir Punch Me Up to the Gods heralds the arrival of an extraordinary new writer. In essays of searing wit and compassion, Broome leads the reader through growing up Black and gay in rural Ohio, examining his relationship with his pragmatic mother and defeated father. As a young adult, he moves to Pittsburgh. The city affords him the community he had long sought growing up, but also causes him to confront his issues with addiction and past traumas. In every essay, Broome’s joyful empathy shines through, as he unflinchingly recollects the darkest moments of his life with sensitivity and good humor. Broome’s book has been met with glowing praise by fellow writers and critics. The New York Times Book Review stated, “Punch Me Up to the Gods feels like a gift,” and Kiese Laymon said, “Punch Me Up to the Gods obliterates what we thought were the limitations of not just the American memoir, but the possibilities of the American paragraph. I’m not sure a book has ever had me sobbing, punching the air, dying of laughter, and needing to write as much as Brian Broome’s staggering debut.” Author photo courtesy of Andy Johanson.
The Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool” serves as a structure for your memoir, with lines from the poem acting as titles of different chapters. Can you talk about how you arrived at having the poem play such an integral part of your book?
It’s really a simple answer. I read that poem and thought, “This is a tiny treatise about Black masculinity.” Even before I knew anything about Gwendolyn Brooks and why she wrote the poem, when I read it, I was like, “This feels like instructions for how I and a lot of my peers, when we were young, were taught what a Black man is: disaffected, tough, cool, and irrefutably masculine.” So that’s why I chose that poem. Also, it’s just a great poem. Then I started doing some research on Gwendolyn Brooks with respect to the poem, and she talked about how she was walking by this poolhall one day. She saw these seven kids hanging out in the pool hall doing very adult things and she wondered how they felt about themselves. When I read the poem, I thought, “How did I feel about myself at that age?” I took the lines of the poem as a challenge. I was like, “I have a story for each line of the poem that flies in the face of this Black masculinity thing.” So that’s how I came to the decision to use it.
The spine of the story is you recounting a bus ride where you observe a father interacting with his toddler son. How did that through line make its way into your book?
I was writing the book and using the Gwendolyn Brooks poem and those lines to tell the stories. But then I took a bus ride. I ride on the bus all the time. It’s kind of a weird thing I have—I like the sensation of motion, you can look around and see all the people. You’re surrounded by stories. The boy is a real boy. The father’s a real father. I literally sat there watching them interact. I thought right there on the bus, “I wonder how I can incorporate this into my book?” I was taking brief notes just to remind myself of how they interacted. When I got home I started writing this story with the initiation of Tuan. That’s how it ended up there, literally through a real interaction—well, me being creepy and snoopy on a bus, but yeah. (laughs) I wondered, “How can I get this into the book, watching the father instruct his son about little things in terms of how to be a Black man in the world?”
I read in another interview that you do a lot of your writing on the bus?
I do. I don’t know what compels me to write on the bus. I sit down and I try to mind my own business, but I’m looking around and eavesdropping on people’s conversations. I find it fascinating. There’s a bus in Pittsburgh called the P1, and it’s the most interesting experience you’ll ever have on public transportation. It goes through a big chunk of the city, so it stops in all these different kinds of neighborhoods. It stops in affluent neighborhoods, it stops in poor neighborhoods, it stops in predominantly Black neighborhoods, it stops in predominantly white neighborhoods, it stops to pick up students who are on their way to university. There’s this real mix of people on the P1. I was posting these stories every day from the P1. Really the Tuan story is a P1 story, even though I wasn’t on the P1 at the time. I don’t know why, I’m nuts. I like to write on the bus, so much so that writing sitting still drives me crazy. Sometimes I’ll get on the bus just so I can just write something.
That seems like it should be part of Pittsburgh Public Transportation’s marketing plan.
“Come see Brian Broome write on the bus! Do not disturb him.” (laughs)
So much of the bus section seems to be a love letter to Pittsburgh, especially when you’re driving past all the gay bars that have shut down. It seems like you’re not only celebrating Pittsburgh as it is today but also the Pittsburgh from twenty years ago that no longer is.
I miss it, even though it was grimy. I was young and I didn’t think the world would ever change. Now when I look at the places where all this stuff used to be, my age attacks me full bore—how much time has gone past, how many people I’ve known. Those places were grimy and special. Here’s a story. There’s a place called Presley’s that I mention in the book. A few weeks ago, I was walking down the street where Presley’s has stood abandoned for a long time. I noticed a few people in front of Presley’s. I was walking toward it and they had the doors open. Workmen were cleaning it out. I stopped and said, “What are you doing?” And they said, “We’re cleaning this out, somebody bought it.” I asked, “Do you mind if I go inside?” And they said, “Sure we don’t care.” So I went inside Presley’s for the first time since the story that appears in the book and all these memories of that story came back to me. Where I was standing ,where the people were situated, where the bartender was. Everything still looked exactly the same as when I had been there way back then. It was kind of thrilling. It was dusty and dirty and had that feeling of something that’s been abandoned. It had a relic feel to it, it felt like I was visiting an archive. All those places are gone now, but I still have the memories and I cherish them.
Each chapter has such a specific sense of place, the reader feels like they’re in those bars right alongside you.
That’s my whole writing philosophy. “Come along with me and let me show you some crazy shit.” (laughs)
Some of your essays originated as stories at the Pittsburgh storytelling show, WordPlay. Can you talk about the challenge of transferring a story from its oral form to the written form?
I learned in this process that I write like I’m speaking, and that doesn’t always work. For instance, sometimes when you’re performing a piece, repetition is a good thing. If you’re trying to drive home a point or make the audience look in a particular direction, repeating is a good strategy. That doesn’t work in print. That’s one of the conversations we had in the editing process. Refrains don’t work. There can’t be a leitmotif in each piece. You have to trust that the reader will get there on their own. That, for me, was the biggest difference between writing and performing. Performing you get a real chance to read your audience. But with writing you have to be a bit more subtle. Ultimately I’d love to perform all the pieces that I write, but not all of them are performable, because when I perform I yell and shout and scream and jump up and down. I just have to find a way to yell and shout and scream and jump up and down on the page, which is a much more subtle thing.
How did you come to writing?
I used to write a lot when I was a kid. I used to write in journals, and sit in corners and write. I remember specifically my cousin told me that was weird, and I shouldn’t do that, and that only girls wrote in diaries. At that time I had learned to call it a journal, because diary was too feminine, it was sissified, as we called it. So I stopped. I stopped doing that, and there was a long time when I wasn’t doing it at all. Then my life spun out of control and I went to rehab. There’s not a lot to do in rehab at night. I had a roommate, who, God bless him, snored like a bulldozer. They had him on some medication that ensured he would not wake up, and he just snored all night. In rehab they would give you little pads of paper and a pen, and you were supposed to write down the epiphanies of being in rehab. I just decided, I’m going to write down the stories that I think landed me here. That’s how it started. I started writing stories trying to answer the question, “Why am I in rehab?”
When I got out of rehab, I had a few stories written. Then I started writing on social media. I started writing on social media specifically because I was afraid to go anywhere. I didn’t want to relapse. I stayed at home, so social media was my outlet. A friend of mine said, “You’ve been writing a lot of good stuff on social media, why don’t you try to get something published?” I didn’t really know what that meant. I had no idea what he was talking about. I submitted something, at his suggestion, to The Ocean State Review, and it got published. It was the first thing I had ever submitted, so then I started thinking, “Well, maybe I can do this.” I went back to school. I wasn’t focused on writing then, but it just became more and more of a presence in my life. People started asking me to write things, and I tried out for a few contests. I won one, and that’s just how it began, I guess. I picked up where I left off after I got sober. I like to think I owe all my writing successes to my snoring roommate. I wish I could remember his name. If I had gotten any sleep, I wouldn’t have written at all.
One thing that was really powerful was how empathetically and humanely you depict all the different people in your stories. Can you talk about how you approach telling stories from your past?
I think I owe a lot of my ability to reflect on recovery. I know that I—on the outside—was a pretty bad person when I was in active addiction. I stole, I lied all the time, and—not that being slutty is bad, but I was slutty for all the wrong reasons. There was a lot going on inside of me, a lot of self-loathing. I absolutely hated myself. That showed itself up in bad behavior. I try to give everybody that benefit of the doubt and not be so black and white in terms of who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, because I wasn’t a good guy and, in some ways still, I’m not a good guy. But I try. That’s the goal. One of the reasons that I wrote this book is I’m trying to be a better person, so I may as well tell the truth in this book that everybody’s going to read.
My mother just read it, and we talked about it last night. I was really afraid of her reaction, but she said she loved it. She had to skip over some of the more unsavory parts, she said, and she had a few criticisms. But she said she loved it and that really meant a lot to me. She had one little quibble about something that I wrote that she didn’t think was a hundred percent accurate, because she said, “Our lawn was always immaculate.” I remember it as it being dirty. And that’s just one of those weird things that memory does, because I hated that house. She maybe has a more clear picture of it, but I don’t remember our lawn being pretty. I remember it being a dumpster fire.
That’s the other thing that’s amazing to me, the things that people don’t remember that are absolute watershed moments in your own life. Did you ever have a big, huge thing that happened to you that changed your life, and then you ask the person who was with you years later, “Do you remember?” And they go, “No!” (laughs) I love the fact that there are moments just for yourself that only you remember a certain way.
Finally, what role have public libraries played in your life?
I love all libraries, because they’re so serene and so quiet. I did a lot of the writing for this book in the Chatham University library. I just like the quiet and the coziness. You’re surrounded by books and that book smell. If I’m not on the bus writing, I’m in the library writing. Buses that I take, that I write on, I’m usually taking them to the library. Libraries played a pivotal role in the creation of this book. Sometimes I just go to the library for no particular reason. I don’t want anything, I just go there to feel the energy of curiosity that’s alive in the library. The library’s a special place, it’s a place of peace, and that’s something that I’ve needed a lot of in my life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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