Brontez Purnell on Max Steele

Love Letters: Some of our favourite writers write on one of their favourite writers. Originally published in Issue 21.

I met Max Steele in a super smoky dorm room one night at Sarah Lawrence, it was 2003. I know it was sometime in the far past because it was back when you could still smoke cigarettes in dorm rooms at Sarah Lawrence. Oh, god, I miss smoking in dorm rooms. To quote Beatnik poetess Phillipa Fallon in High School Confidential: “TOMORROW IS A DRAG MAN, TOMORROW IS A KING-SIZED BUST.” 

But also, I can’t harp on the futility of the future too much. Especially since I get to share it with Max Steele. I’m pretty sweet on him and have been for like two decades now. I can explain.  My old band Gravy Train had played the liberal arts college he was attending at the time and we met that night and became friends (also, he had just left Oakland for New York and I had just moved to Oakland from Alabama. We were ships passing in the night, of sorts.)

The older I get the more I kind of home in on shared art contexts and social lineages. Me and Max were both zine-makers who liked the same indie bands, which in 2003 seemed pretty par for the course, but cut to all these years later, where the mutual cultural portals we jumped through as baby queers have either all but closed up, or don’t really hold the same footing on larger cultural conversations, there is something about our shared space that still seems well-kindred. Years after the Sarah Lawrence meeting, we kept in touch via Myspace, and he used to go-go dance at this queer party my band played in the Lower East Side whenever I was in New York. I did the zine Fag School while Max was doing Scorcher and Door Girls respectively.  I don’t think people ever really understand what major fucking breakthroughs these zines were honestly.  Like I remember a Lambda Literary Review referring to it as “Psychedelic Porno Poetry” but to me, it hit so many more emotional tones than that.

I have very rarely encountered many voices that I felt were “speaking to me.” So much of modern gay writing always feels like it’s this pedantic push of either like performative outrage or a bunch of false prophets trying to sell me something. I can carefully look at Max’s writing from Scorcher to Door Girls and his current offerings Valance/Epsilon and the through lines of all his influences just resonate. I just vibe with this very queer, first-person narrative, where the personal is political but not the way in which that notion has been bastardized and weaponized for the sake of cheap entertainment but in like this glowing sense of witnessing a smart sensitive bitch move through the emotions in their head. Like you have a surveillance camera on their heart/brain connection. This writing also feels like it has deep hands in the past—a certain nod to New Narrative and The Language Poets—but also is firmly grounded in classic tense. I could read this now or fifty years from now and it would still just be true. I would take well more than the allotted 500 words I’m allowed here to explain why I love Max’s writing.