The Bad Boy of Gay Lit
Talking with Dennis Cooper
By Owen Keehnen
From 'Chicago Outlines' - 5/1992
Dennis Cooper is the author of such books as The Tenderness of Wolves, Idols, Safe, and Closer. He is without a doubt the most controversial of his contemporaries primarily due to his notorious novel Frisk, which was recently nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men's Fiction. As evidenced by the nomination, Dennis Cooper's ability and style are greatly praised; it's his subject matter that has been the source of all the debate and disagreement. In Wrong, his just released collection of short stories from the past decade, Cooper continues to explore his literary obsession with sex, numbness, and violent death and the thin lines that separate one from the other. Recently I talked with him about his writing, his life, and being labeled 'The Bad Boy of Gay Lit'.
You have been described as the leading writer of The Blank Generation. Would you care to clarify that?
They started using that term with me a long time ago because my work was associated with punk. I guess it's used to describe people who aren’t expressive or express themselves in a monotone or seem to not have emotions or whose emotions are hidden away. I actually wrote a poem called 'The Blank Generation' based on the Richard Hell song.
Many of your themes are recurring and given that, what do you consider to be your quintessential piece?
I usually like the last thing because I feel I'm getting better all the time. But this Wrong book is a little weird for me because I'm not real interested in a lot of that stuff anymore. I guess I like Frisk the best. I'm pleased with what it does or something. I also like 'My Mark' from Safe. I'm really proud of that.
Yeah, It seems like a lot of the stories in Wrong were sort of exercises leading up to Frisk. Did you have any idea that Frisk was going to be the controversial sensation that it was?
It's been hard and I guess I should have figured. But I didn't expect anyone other than my usual audience to read it and they’d understand what I was trying to do. Then American Psycho came out. Just weird timing. Frisk caused this sensation and there are a lot of people who now have an idea of what they think I do based on what they've heard about it.
That sucks because the offensive part of Frisk is a fantasy anyway.
It's about the imagination vs. reality because reality is just this stupid ugly thing like Jeffrey Dahmer which is of course a completely different issue…but of course that came along too. So it's been very difficult. I get attacked by a lot of people who don't know what they're talking about. Some people took it like it was done to cause shock. I mean, I am always interested in seducing people into feeling things they don’t want to feel. But I guess that's just what happens and now I have to live down this reputation as a slice-and-dice writer. Murder has been recurring in my work, but it's all about objectification and the body and all these other things that interest me.
On the thematic level what is the connection in your work between sex, death, and violence?
It's complicated and I'm not sure I know. My work is still figuring it out. I guess I have this basic need to have a religious belief in something but I don't believe in any religious structure or any philosopher's notions. I haven't been able to buy any as the one to settle on. To me, desire is the thing of interest because suddenly you’re overwhelmed by it and it’s illogical and something that powerful is some sort of religious belief.
Why the violence?
I'm not interested in violence out of anger. I'm interested in violence as a transgression of the body.
Is there a thematic reason why most of your characters are adolescents?
Teenagers interest me because they can see what's ahead of them and they can remember what's behind them. It's really an honest stage. They're making this big decision to either compromise and give into what the world wants them to do and be and just stop caring that much about anything, or they can just say "Fuck it" and so something different. Especially being a gay teenager there is all the more reason not to give in to that heterosexual model.
But there are other models now.
The queer culture that's developing is great. But I guess I'm obviously an anti-assimilationist. There are so many people urging you to become "gay normal" within your ghetto. I get attacked by a lot of those people.
What's something that excites you?
I'm really interested in this whole zine culture. We just did Spew 2 and it was fantastic. This was a really interesting culture, completely politically incorrect but it merged totally with Queer Nation and Act-Up. It was nice to see there was a way in which you can have a collective queer identity without having to sell out. There were all these conflicting ideas, but everyone was still working together.
Is your writing process different for poetry and prose?
I don't write poetry anymore. When I started writing fiction I dropped it. I got more interested in expanding my work and less interested in stanzas and things - although Closer is written in stanzaed paragraphs. I was making equal length paragraphs to see what this would do as a poetic device. Now I see it was a transitional thing.
You can see it happening in your work. Your poetry was very close to prose and your prose tends to be lyrical. You also do performance art?
I've always done my performance pieces with choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones. It's interesting because we're both interested in the same issues but Ishmael's work is very extroverted and mine is very introverted so these weird explosions sometimes happen.
What are you working on now?
They're making a movie out of Frisk. This young queer filmmaker Gregg Araki is raising the money and I've seen the script and stuff. I also wrote a movie in 1982 with Norman Yonemoto called 'Tricks'. It's being filmed this summer. It's sort of a strange artsy-fartsy porno movie. But mainly I've been working for the past year and a half on a new novel called Band. It's a multiple perspective thing centering around this kid who's making a zine.
Congratulations on your Lambda Book Award Nomination.
It seems like a gesture or something but I know they'd never give it to me. I just hope David Wojnarowicz wins.
Close to The Knives is such a brilliant time capsule. God, that book is so important.
It's a book that could easily change someone's life.
What writer's have influenced you?
DeSade when I was younger. I generally like French writers…Genet, Bataille. I don't like much American fiction but I like Kathy Acker and Burroughs and Denton Welch.
Do you live the decadent lifestyle of so many of your characters?
I used to. I haven't much lately. I have a lot to do now and I'm a lot more stationary than I used to be. I go to see a lot of bands. I used to hang around with hustlers in hustler bars and do a lot of drugs and everything. I had a reasonably wild life for a long time. I'm totally for people having as much experience as possible and doing drugs and everything. You get so much out of it and there's no reason not to as long as you don't make yourself sick or kill yourself or something.
Any more advice to your public?
People should buy the new My Bloody Valentine album. That's my favorite record.