(August 1991)
By Owen Keehnen

When I interviewed the amazing David Wojnarowicz in August 1991 it was a very clear case of hero worship. I was in awe of the raw brilliance of this man. It blazed and crackled in every sector of his work -- his photos, his film and collage work, his writing… It was how the man lived his life. At the time I was a fledging activist and had just finished reading the explosive and brilliant collection of essays Close To The Knives (Vintage Books) that in my opinion still ranks today as one of the finest and most important piece of writing to emerge from the epidemic.

This interview took place via telephone --- me in my stifling Chicago apartment and Wojnarowicz's in his stifling NYC apartment. I was so struck by the power of Close to the Knives that I mustered my courage and called out the blue asking him for an interview. He had someone over at the time and so he somewhat reluctantly set up a time an hour or so later. Initially during the interview he was guarded and suspicious of me as a journalist and as one who might possibly misrepresent his work and ideas…or even as a possible stalker/fanatic. However, I think what eventually won his confidence in me was the obvious puppy dog enthusiasm I had for his work. Listening to the full recording of our conversation I can almost hear him thinking, this person is not a threat! It is the kind of interview I look back upon and am grateful for the opportunity, but it’s also the kind I read through and think "I wish I would have had a bit more of a cool journalist head about me". But as I said it was a very clear case of hero worship.

He was an amazing man and an incredible artist. In 1992, only a few months after this interview took place that incredible and dynamic voice was silenced and David Wojnarowicz was dead of complications from AIDS.

Close to the Knives is so excellent and important. I’ve been recommending it to everyone.

It's odd. I think I’ve gotten 2 or 3 reviews. It’s been pretty quiet on one level, but apparently the book is doing well so it must just be by word of mouth.

Do you sense a conspiracy or push to silence the book?

I have no idea. I’ve been told a couple times they have no idea what to make of my book at Random House. They can’t put me in a place. They need to break everything down into categories. I mean, I think publishing in general really sucks. What ticks me off is that no straight or mainstream press has dealt with the book at all. It’s something I want straight people to read because everyone else has lived some variation of the issues in the book. The people I’d most like to read it are the people least likely to, straight people and teenagers.

Well, I agree with your stance that Close to The Knives is outside a formula. I'd call it surreal social criticism -- like Genet meets Larry Kramer.

The few reviews I’ve read of it have been interesting. It's like people generally like the book, but can’t understand why.

What was your intention?

My intention has been since I was in my early 20s to write a book about what it was like to live in this country. And it’s a fairly dark book of what I’d experienced up to that point. The issues of privacy and what should remain private are a total joke to me especially in the light of things like the epidemic. The fact is that it’s still exploding mainly because of these insane notions of privacy and the body. There is so much irony in how information is disseminated. We can look at Ronald Reagan’s asshole on TV and in newspapers and yet we can’t discuss health issues pertaining to our bodies. I wanted to write a book to show where people, specifically myself, can get pushed living in this society. It was also a record of things I’ve carried in my head all my life. I wanted to put it down on paper because I’m feeling mortality. I wanted a record of what I cared about, what I was attracted to, what I did in terms of self-destruction, all that stuff.

It's there. It's powerful in its anger and immediacy and voice. And it's visually stimulating at the same time. Your anger is incredibly beautiful.

I don't see anything wrong with anger. I think it's a healthy and transitory emotion. It leads you to other things or to action or whatever. People think the only reason why I write like this is because I have AIDS. I've had to deal with that the past year or two. People are frightened by any display of anger or writing that deals with anger. This whole nation is so full of denial that it makes people uncomfortable and they can't deal with that.

What's your view of the NEA battles?

I have very little respect for the way they've handled any of this stuff. The last thing I saw (John) Frohmeyer (NEA director) trying to handle was the ‘Poison’ controversy and he's getting a little better but I still wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him. My experience of what I went through is just sickening. My sympathies aren't great with the NEA. They haven't really done shit in terms of getting beyond certain clique mentalities.

I think you state it pretty clearly when you talk about legitimate art as basically the perpetuation of straight white male fantasies.

The right wing and the fundamentalists have jumped into the fray over the past couple of years -- (Don) Wildmon (of the American Family Association), (Pat) Robertson, people like that. It's just a huge moneymaking gambit. A British journalist in the last year filmed Wildmon's compound and he has seven volunteers who just empty checks out of envelopes all day. Last year he claimed to have made over five million dollars in $10 and $15 dollar donations. It's a huge racket. They have an effect on art and television and they're not far from evil. It all boils down to money and notions of power.

"When I was told I'd contracted this virus it didn't take me long to realize I'd contracted a diseased society as well". That statement captures so much the ongoing battle occurring in this country.

To have grown up in a time when there were still electro-shock treatments for homosexuality and it was still considered a mental be labeled mentally defective by my desire by a country I feel is borderline insane is idiotic. Every direction you turn, in terms of social politics or social concerns, I just can't believe this country can get any more sick and yet -- for example during The Gulf War we're constantly fed these images of a homogenous society that seems to consist mainly of white zombies waving flags.

And wearing yellow ribbons.

The best image I saw in the past couple of months was out in SF at The Writer's Conference. I was down in the Tenderloin District sitting in a coffee shop and outside the window this hideous fucking pile of rags was walking around. You couldn't tell what gender it was, totally fucked up red scaly arms hanging out the sides and a rag turban so you couldn't see the face. It was someone who was obviously suffering. And attached to its chest was this HUGE pristine yellow ribbon. It's time like that when I really feel like I'm going to lose it. Here is a person who is obviously human waste to this society and yet they’ve bought into war fever.

Do you attribute that mainly to the media?

I think an enormous amount should be attributed to the media. It's denial, it's ignorance, it's weird misplaced hope. People don't want to see how horrifying things are and are rapidly becoming. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been dropped from another planet because the denial is so severe. I'm just amazed all these starving people aren't rampaging. People's tolerance for physical distress is unbelievable.

Speaking of the media, explain your myth of the one-tribe nation.

The best context to place that in is what we get in the media. The generic upper and upper middle class group information/illusion fed us X number hours a day. The information apples to a mythic 'general public' and that is used by politicians and fundamentalists and anyone trying to set a particular structure in place and have it enforced morally or otherwise by institutions. It's this myth that there’s one generic public that is totally untrue. Once you deal with people that myth breaks down.

In Close to the Knives you muse as to why more people don’t go completely berserk. What do you think pushes them to the brink?

I certainly have my moments where I feel if I witness one more thing I have the capability of crossing over a line and the only thing stopping me is that I don’t have access to weaponry. When I see some savage asshole on TV making proclamations about the epidemic, acting like the amount of death that has taken place is acceptable or of no concern or that the virus has or moral code or sexual orientation or whatever.

Or the racist fact that it's been completely ignored in Africa.

Have we really gotten any information about AIDS in the past 10 years? People still laugh and make "who doesn't know how to use a condom' jokes on talk shows when using a condom is mentioned. But most people don’t know how to use a condom in a way that will keep a virus or STD from breaking through. We've never had any of that information blatantly outlined. I just throw up my hands. Come on, it's 1991.

The anger in your book comes from frustration and also isolation. Do you think the level of frustration in this country makes people ready to revolt, but the level is isolation makes that impossible?

Given the power structure of this country I have no doubt that if there was a genuine civil war the government would have no qualms about shooting us all down in the streets. Look at the laws now being passed by The Supreme Court…that coerced confessions are okay and admissible in court. I can't believe it. Cops can beat the shit out of you, make you confess to things you haven’t done and that's acceptable in court. Our civil liberties are disappearing rapidly. I'd be overjoyed to see a civil war in this country; at least it's a reaction that breaks through the apathetic field. But in reality it's hard to imagine what could make a major shift. The only thing I’ve been about to come up with is other countries uprising to break the controls of this government.

True, there's such a push here to be a good little citizen.

I was talking to a friend of mine and he and his boyfriend had come out to their respective parents and he got a letter from some woman who knows them and she sent a list of things they shouldn't do in public if they want to make themselves acceptable as a couple. He read me the list and it was so outrageous. It's the heterosexual nightmare of what other desire is. Squash diversity or alternate desire. Acting in prescribed notions of what identity should be is a joke.

In the book there's a tension between restriction and freedom. How can a person act freely in a restrictive society?

People choose different paths; many unfortunately, are extremely self-destructive. You can do drugs to attempt to shift it but it never physically removes you from those restrictions. The landscape of this country is so controlled. What is freedom at this point? My frustration comes from wondering how one achieves any sense of freedom. Just about any activity - physical, mental, sexual - is slowly being controlled or hampered. I foresee a time when certain books and ideas will just be banned. There are a lot of people who believe all our methods of communication should be shut down or outlawed.

What do you think of outing?

One of the biggest problems is that I look at things from 12 different angles. When it's somebody who's actively destructive towards the gay community and who is in a position of power to effect laws etc. and they hide the fact that they’re a homosexual or lesbian I say "Out them". It's a complicated psychological process for people to come out. To out people merely because they're not being verbal and outspoken about their desire -- It can really do a lot of damage emotionally and psychologically if they're not prepared. Personally, I had to work through certain things before I finally realized that society had no right to deny my feelings. I'm mixed on outing. It sounds wishy-washy but I think it's an incredibly complex issue. The bottom line is if everyone came out life would change drastically because the power would be so evident. I wonder what it's like for teenagers now. I don’t think it's any easier culturally, but there is a much more visible system of support.

You mentioned realizing you were gay around 9. What happened for you?

My mother had custody of us and she put us in some kind of weird home with some psychotic woman and a whole bunch of other kids and somehow my father kidnapped us out of there and spirited us around in parts of Michigan to the farms of different relatives. When I was about 8 and a half brother, my sister and me contacted my mother to live with her in New York and after that the family just fell apart really quickly. By the time I was 9 I started having sexual experiences because I lived not far from Times Square and I practically lived in the movie houses because they were cheap cheap movies. I inadvertently tapped into this whole subculture and learned about hustling. I started running away from home periodically for different lengths of time and ended up living on the streets sometime in my mid teens. I came close to dying there. I was a walking skeleton and had no access to any kind of healthcare. I remember at 17 trying everything I could in terms of city agencies and not being able to obtain health anywhere. Eventually I got off the streets when some guy picked me up in Times Square who let me live with him for a month in this cheap apartment in that area. He was an ex con man. He worked as a counselor with fake degrees at a halfway house for ex-cons. He got tired of me being around because I was always stealing animals from pet shops and I turned his place into a zoo…giant African frogs and lizards and turtles. It was something I just always did as a kid. I used to steal alligators out of Macy’s and let them go in Central Park Lake thinking they were going to eat ducks and survive. I didn’t realize issues like winter. Anyway, this guy got tired of me and pretended he found me on street and took me to a halfway house. They took a look at my background and realized that if they didn’t let me in I'd eventually be there as an ex-con. Once I got into this house it was the first chance I really had to try and pull everything back together. I'd always tried to do some writing and drawing and once I got off the streets I just started exploring it more and more.

You've described your art as 'fragmented mirrors' of what you believe the world to be. Does that accurately describe Close to the Knives as well?

Absolutely. I had this conversation with my sister a couple years ago. I was talking to her about my work and she said, 'You like to shock people' and I said, 'Look, that's not what I try to do at all, this is really how I see the world." People have this idea that I do certain things to provoke certain responses. Well on one level, sure, great, if I can provoke something. But it's literally what I see and what I experience in the visual work, which has it’s own language, as well as the written work. It's fragmentation and I think we're all experiencing it but some people seem to be able to put up blinders and focus on very limited or small or specific things in order to make it through without experiencing the weird horror of what's happening.

What would your reaction be to being called the conscience of the epidemic?

Well...there’s a lot of odd stuff that gets tossed towards me. One of my intentions with the book was to deal specifically with my own structure, my own sense of perception -- visual or otherwise. If something I write or say encapsulates feelings that are out there -- great. But the people I have the most respect for in ACT-UP, for example, aren't generally the people with the greatest visibility. For me it’s the lesbian waitress from NJ who's on her first action with her lover who's scared to death and the two of them are about to place themselves on the line of being arrested for the first time in their lives. I have an unbelievable respect for people like that because they're dismantling this illusion of law - of what law is and what law is intended to do. Quiet, anonymous people doing things that are confrontational for them. My response is that those people deserve the respect.

Thanks David, your book is amazing. It's been great talking to you.

Thanks Owen, be well.