Conversation with Ooligan Alum Cooper Lee Bombardier

I met Cooper Lee Bombardier in a nonfiction writing seminar at PSU, in the fall of 2011. At the time, Cooper was about halfway through the publishing program, I’d just begun the MFA in nonfiction writing, and I liked him right away for his honest and adventurous work, and for what I took to be a worldview—and an outlook on writing and publishing—not unlike my own. It was through Cooper I learned of Ooligan Press, and I pillaged him for answers when I began looking into the program for myself. (Cooper and I would each tackle both an MFA in nonfiction and an MS in publishing, but in orders opposite each other.) Now a graduate of both programs, Cooper remains busily immersed in education, writing, and other exciting book-related projects. In January, we took advantage of a rare sunny day to walk the beach at Kelley Point Park, catch up, and compare notes on the Ooligan/MFA experience.

Cooper Lee Bombardier: I started the publishing program in fall 2010. I was applying to graduate programs, and a friend of mine had done the Ooligan program and really loved it and told me to get in touch with Dennis Stovall. So I started emailing Dennis and asking him questions, and he had a lot of great things to say. I remember him saying there were all kinds of people in the program: people who wanted to be editors, people who wanted to be farmers … people who had done all kinds of different things in their careers. Artists and writers and—

—and you were both of those things.

Yeah. I did my undergrad work in illustration, and I guess I was always pretty in love with books and art, and image and text together. I wanted to go to graduate school and write, so at first the publishing program was a way to get into a bunch of writing classes and do all these other hands-on things, which I love. I was pretty much a self-taught writer, and I thought I wanted to do an MFA in fiction. It was Tom Bissell’s Forms of Nonfiction class that made me realize how weird and cool nonfiction could be—so I applied to the MFA in nonfiction writing.

And did you find that the two degrees complemented each other?

Oh, yeah. I worked on writing throughout, and in publishing I developed a couple proposals for book projects. I think it was really valuable in terms of my main goal of wanting to be a writer. MFA programs tend to focus on the artistic side of things, and with the sort of tangible concerns of publishing, it’s more like learning a trade. I feel like the publishing program gave me an advantage, in a way. It helped me understand the whole process: how writing goes from slush pile to selection to publication.

I’m always curious about which books former Oolies worked on. How about you?

I did marketing work on Portland Red Guide and Rethinking Paper & Ink. And what I realized was that I know how to do this stuff. I’ve put on shows, I’ve put on events, I know how to write a press release. You know, the DIY skills that I learned over the years—doing Sister Spit stuff, putting together tours, putting on art shows—those skills were totally applicable, which was a delight. Knowing that to some extent I already had those skills from being sort of a punk artist … when I went into the publishing program, I wouldn’t have thought that marketing was my jam, but I totally loved it. I’m really good at talking up projects I believe in.

I’ve always known you to be busy, juggling a million projects and jobs. What’s keeping you occupied these days?

Since I graduated, I’ve been teaching as an adjunct professor at PSU. And I love it—I love teaching at PSU. I love the student body, the diversity of experience and age and ethnicity and nationality. It’s really an invigorating environment. I’m also teaching writing as an adjunct at the University of Portland—

Right! Do you ever see Father Pat [Hannon, a graduate of the PSU MFA program and a teacher at the University of Portland]?

Yeah, I see Pat all the time!

Say hi for me?

I will. I love that guy. He’s just a beautiful human being.

Indeed. So you teach at the University of Portland and Portland State. What else?

I have a residency with Writers in the Schools. I’m supposed to get a late spring placement—they’re trying to work around my schedule, because my winter term is so intense—so hopefully it’ll work out. I’m really excited about that. I’m also getting stuff published here and there. I have a friend, a Los Angeles photographer named Leon Mostovoy, who is doing a project called Transfigure, where he’s photographed all these nude portraits of different trans folks. The pictures are divided into thirds, and then the different thirds, the different bodies are placed together.

And is it being turned into a book, or a zine, or … ?

Yeah—there’s a book being made about the show, with photographs and whatnot, and I was invited to write something for that. Me and Jack Halberstam and a couple other people.

That’s so great, Cooper! And what are you contributing?

I wrote a fragmentary piece—

—which is fitting, given the forum.

That’s what I was hoping. I was reading this essay about Kathy Acker, about how she would edit each one of her pieces for eight things. One edit for voice, one for how it looks—how it looks to a mirror—and so forth. And I had the idea of doing this piece about trans bodies without using any words about gender. It’s kind of a cut-up between Kathy Acker’s eight ways [of revision] and the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhist thought. I don’t know if it was successful, but it was an interesting and weird and hard piece to write.

Can you talk more about how the publishing program informed your work as a writer?

Taking editing classes really transformed the state of the work I send out. I feel like my work is just a lot cleaner now. And having now seen the whole process, I always teach at least a crash course lecture on publishing, and encourage my writing students to give publishing a shot. Again, for me that also comes from that sort of punk and DIY sensibility of not waiting for somebody to tap you on the shoulder and anoint you. It’s more like, you put your work out in the world and shape it as you go. Instead of like, ‘this is just something that I do, and I’m going to save it in a shoebox under my bed until I die,’ I encourage them to see it as entering a literary conversation, starting to identify who their work makes sense next to and who their work is talking to, taking that risk and putting it out there—just getting it out into the world.

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