The first time I read a Poppy Z. Brite book, I was sixteen. Like all worthwhile vamp novels of the 80’s and 90’s, they took place in my native New Orleans. But Brite’s weren’t the smoldering, porcelain, seduce you with our erotic words and dripping suggestions Dead Lovers that sustained purely on the life force of human blood. These vampires had the earthly abilities to guzzle bottle after burn-in-the-throat-bottle of chartreuse, eat cupcakes and lick sugar from each other’s fingertips, and, most importantly, have hard, hot, nothin’-metaphorical-about-it gay sex. They could, and they did.
Not all of PZB’s novels were vampire books. There were healthy doses of traumatized human murders healed through (sexual) connection, incestuous twins, epic drug trips, paranormal experiences, kink underground social scenes, and rock and roll. The blood, spit, and semen that held it all together was a lush, vulnerable prose that I chased and devoured for years. When, in Lost Souls, Brite described New Orleans air as, “hot and wet like a kiss,” I suddenly loved the humidity that makes my hometown unbearable to non-natives. In high school, someone asked me how my weekend was, and I proceeded to answer that this one of the most exciting weekends of my life, before I realized that all my adrenaline and enthusiasm had amounted to one thing: reading Drawing Blood over the course of two days.
I loved the drag queen in The Lazarus Heart and immediately recognized her as an integral New Orleans spirit. I sat on the cream-colored couch in Garden District Books, a shop specializing in local authors, and devoured Plastic Jesus, Brite’s adventurous take on John Lennon’s imagined love affair with Paul McCartney. When Brite left dark fantasy behind for a series of lusty, crime-ridden stories set in New Orleans’ unparalleled culinary world, I read no less voraciously, thrilled when Prime was released as the follow-up to Liquor, at the center of which novels are Ricky and G-man, two renowned chefs who’ve been together as a couple since their teenage years.
It’s been over ten years since Poppy Z. Brite has written a novel, but the intervening years have allowed readers to be a part of the more intimate aspects of the author’s life. Brite’s blog, Dispatches from Tanzanikya, became a portrait of a city shattered after Katrina hit, and remains one of the most vivid chronicles of a city resurrecting, transforming, mourning, and healing. Readers and fans who have followed the author from early days were aware of Brite’s assertion that, despite his female biological body, he has always understood himself as a man. The blog also chronicles his hormonal transition from female to male, as well as the cataclysmic shifts in his personal life, such as his separation from his partner of twenty-two years, and subsequent relationship with a celebrated gay New Orleans photographer. Poppy Z. Brite is now Billy Martin, and his meditations on the nature of love and home radiate a strength and heartbreak that is every bit as compelling as a novel, no less replete with the raw eloquence that allows a writer to connect with a reader, and for readers to connect around the world as a result.
At this new phrase in life, Martin finds himself not immersed in the world of words, but that of color, texture, and sculpture. After making a career on the remarkable tangibility of imagined settings, Martin now paints visceral, highly textured paintings, inspired by a mélange of uniquely New Orleans macabre, personal experience, and religious symbolism. He also creates wonderfully unsettling mixed media work that draws attention to the still-vital issues the news media has left behind, such as the stirring Oil Spill.
Recently, I purchased one of Billy Martin’s paintings. Nothing quite summed up what I was feeling at the time like this raw heart and exposed bone, and the well-meaning phrases surrounding them that did nothing to soothe the scorch. Through a complicated mail mix-up, the painting never reached me, and Martin generously asked what he could do to “make it right,” including a refund offer, or a print of the piece. Personally, I was glad to have bought dinner for an artist that had done so much for my soul as I was growing up, so it wasn’t money I wanted. Already, he had been willing to sell me a $50 painting for $30. He always couples his pricings with, “or best offer,” but in my case, he didn’t even wait for a higher bidder. “If you need this painting badly enough (it’s a visceral one), I’ll sell it to you for $25 plus s/h,” he said. Billy Martin knows what art is for.
When I didn’t receive a reply to the question about commissioning a work for the price I paid, I worried that I might have asked an insulting question. Yesterday, I was ecstatic to receive an email saying that Billy thought he’d replied to me ages ago, and would be happy to do a commission for that price; he’d even throw in a print of Oil Spill, which I had told him struck me deeply, at no extra charge.
With changes in life come changes in one’s artistic needs, and I’m steadily healing from the metaphorical exposed bone that drove me to feel such a connection to Martin’s The Cure for Pain 2. Assimilating the love and grief over two close loved ones that died over the same weekend — one, gradually, expected but no easier, and one a sudden shock, leaving behind a destructive housing situation that was born of weaknesses I once thought were strengths, reconfiguring my finances out of sudden necessity, but also determination and focus. I asked Billy Martin if I could commission, I am truly home. “Whatever that means to you,” I said.
I’m just figuring it out myself. While I understand that it’s a wrought theme for any New Orleans native these days, and that continuous life transitions render it even more so, I’m hoping that the idea’s catharsis potential will be helpful to us both. There’s something so comforting about knowing that someone whose work has meant so much to you for so long is going to connect to what you’ve been thinking about all this time. I haven’t had words to describe the madness of Winter 2013, and I deeply respect Martin for turning to the visual realm for expression. Moved by his generosity, I filled my partner in on the email I’d received, explained who Billy Martin had been to me and why I was excited for this art to come. “You talk like you know him, hon,” my love said. I thought about it and realized that while there is no way I could truly know this person from where I stand now, I have, like so many others, been following deeply personal aspects of his journey for a long time now. By the same token, his books have stretched my ideas, altered some of my perceptions, and, let’s face it, gotten me off, for years. That’s not knowing, exactly, but it sure feels that way. Isn’t it part of what art is for?