The Dangerous Art of Dennis Cooper: an interview with Diarmuid Hester, author of Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper, by Paul Jonathan

In a career spanning five decades, Dennis Cooper has become emblematic of transgressive literature, going where few in the English language dare tread. With comparisons, accurate or not, to Bret Easton Ellis and William Burroughs, the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille, among others, his work encapsulates the contemporary avant-garde. Recurring topics indicative of his fiction include teenage sex, sexual violence and drugtaking and that’s on the light side. I discovered him via Arthur Rimbaud, one of his biggest influences, who has towered over the long twentieth century and has impacted the widest range of artists, from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Henry Miller, from Patti Smith to Jack Kerouac. The Sluts, the first Cooper book I got my hands on, amused me with its overlapping unreliable narrators and inventive narrative methods. I have since kept up with his popular blog and have followed his career as it continues to develop in new formats. Originally a poet, he has expanded his oeuvre to novels, visual art and films.

At 67, Cooper remains as productive as ever, with a new gif novel, Zac’s Drug Binge, released earlier this summer, and a new novel, I Wished, pending publication in 2021. Diarmuid Hester’s colossal work Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper sheds light on a subject that isn’t just alive and very much still writing, but utterly complex, exploring Cooper’s development, transformations and multi-faceted output.

I speak with Hester in mid-June via Google Meet video conferencing. I’m in London, he’s in Cambridge, where he is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English and a College Research Associate of Emmanuel College. Hester looks like a thinking man’s Tom of Finland character, less pornographic, more a product of literature. He grew up in Southeast Ireland, which he left in 2004. His father, an English teacher, instilled in him a passion for literature, which he followed through a series of degrees, discovering American and Queer literature during his time at the University of Dublin. Wrong is the culmination of 15 years of research into Cooper’s life and work.

Hester is an interviewer’s dream. He acknowledges and ponders questions in an almost fatherly way and offers thoughtful answers as if within him lies the entirety of gay literature, all the literary knowledge the interviewer is seeking. He talks to me about his Master’s degree on Sexual Dissidence, where he was first introduced to Dennis Cooper. I tell him there is a lot about Cooper’s life I wasn’t aware of, but what stands out are the different communities he created throughout his career. Cooper isn’t interested in literary stardom, I say, but rather the communal, which Hester’s book conveys perfectly in its examination of the subject’s continuous devotion to writers and artists he seeks to raise up. Hester points to Cooper’s blog as yet another example of this devotion, describing it as “a really important space for new writers.”

Common criticisms of Cooper’s work focus on his subject matter: depictions of underage sexuality, the violence inflicted on his young characters, which tend to overlook his linguistic and formal innovations. Hester is resolute in dispelling the notion of Cooper heralding amorality as many of his critics have suggested. The worlds he’s creating may be dangerous, but that’s only because young people grow up in a dangerous world.

When I shift the conversation to Herve Guibert to suggest a connection between his work and Cooper’s, based on the attention to the body in their respective works, Hester dismantles my argument with careful thought. Guibert’s writing isn’t oriented around a body, he tells me, but around his body. Cooper tends to take himself out of his narratives, whereas Guibert, like Wojnarowicz, puts himself centre stage, and is interested in autobiographical writing, thinly-veiled memoirs. He says the comparison is difficult to make, but Cooper’s new book, which has been said to be the most personal and honest so far, may make the connection between them more evident. This is the sort of precision he brings to his critical biography of Dennis Cooper. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When did you first discover Dennis Cooper? How did you come to critically engage with his work and how did that original research lead you to writing this book?

I originally came across his work when I did a Master’s Degree on Sexual Dissidence at the University of Sussex way back in 2005-2006. Alan Sinfield, my professor, was an important queer studies pioneer who set up what was then the first Queer Studies Master’s in the UK with Jonathan Dollimore. His class on Sexuality, Fiction and Subculture had Dennis Cooper’s Frisk on the syllabus. Encountering it in that context was very much about thinking: how does Dennis Cooper fit into a queer canon of literature?

I then went on to do a Masters in Philosophy at the Centre for Research of Modern European Philosophy. I did my dissertation on French avant-garde writer Pierre Guyotat under Research Fellow Ray Brassier. He said that what is interesting about Guyotat is that he’s a thinker. He has a sophisticated worldview and what you need to do is elucidate that or put it in conversation with his contemporaries, one of whom was Deleuze.

So, when I went on to do the PhD on Dennis Cooper, I thought of him as a thinker, as someone who developed a very nuanced conceptual framework for viewing the world. The PhD was about elucidating that, specifically when it comes to Cooper as an anarchist thinker and how that comes through in his writing, but also how it comes through in his community building. That’s the trajectory that set me to start the book.

How does he fit within the queer canon?

His place within the queer canon, as his place within most collective formations, is sympathetic. But there is a resistance there. It’s quite easy to chart his relationship to queer literature and to gay publishing. His poetic works and his novellas are initially published by gay presses. He has an intimate relationship to gay publishing but also to a gay readership.

But as he is signed to Grove Press, which at that time was publishing Burroughs, but also Kathy Acker, he shifts away from a specifically gay readership to a public that might not be as strictly defined. That became the moment he really seemed to come into his own. He was using gay publishing because his subject matter was gay, but really his orientation was outside of it. Someone once said that queerness was ‘like the weather’ in his books — in other words, it is there but gay identity isn’t a huge focus.

When did you decide you would do an entire book about him?

When you’re developing a PhD you need to be very strictly focused on making an argument. The argument I was making for Cooper was that he is an anarchist artist and an anarchist thinker, who works predominantly in the medium of literature. I spent a lot of time in his archive at NYU and I kept coming across a huge amount of interesting material that didn’t fit within that argument.

How did you go about making a decision on what was to make the cut and what would eventually be left out?

Given that I had decided on a critical biography, the PhD had taken care of the critical part of the argument I was trying to make. The biography part had a certain looseness and plasticity, which enabled me to include anecdotes, follow relationships between writers and artists and also indulge myself as a Cooper fan to bring out lots of things from the archive.

There’s a story that I trace in the book of his relationship with the New York School poet Tom Clark. As the editor of Little Caesar, Cooper promises to publish one of Clark’s books, but then the press runs out of money. Even though Clark had been quite a close friend of Cooper’s and he had given Cooper access to a whole range of New York School poets, such as Joe Brainard and Eileen Myles, as a result of Cooper running out of money and not being able to publish his book their relationship falls apart and becomes quite antagonistic and acrimonious. In the archive, I found all of these postcards that Tom Clark had sent Cooper, which were really quite interesting. He’s furious, he’s conciliatory, he’s trying to cajole Cooper to publish his book. Going through those postcards gave me an interesting take on that relationship, on Cooper’s relationship with the writers that he published and subsequently it gives the reader a really good angle on Clark’s homophobic attack on Cooper in the pages of Rolling Stock magazine.

Gerstler noted his “…passion for cultivating generative artistic and cultural immersion.” Cooper has been a member of or founder of a number of artistic groups, helping to bring to the fore a number of other writers. How did this figure into his own artistic development?

The central axis that I keep coming back to in my study of Cooper, tracing it across this biography, is the continual tension and negotiation between the individual and the communal. That’s a central concern in Cooper’s work, but also in his life. You mention Amy Gerstler. He’s really good friends with Gerstler and has been for a long time. They first started hanging out in Los Angeles at a literary arts centre called Beyond Baroque and at Beyond Baroque he was one of the main figures in the development of this important but short-lived punk poetry scene. In the book, I tease out the development of that scene and the community around it, which included the likes of Gerstler, but also Bob Flanagan, Jack Skelley, David Trinidad, Ed Smith, and the band X. It’s worth thinking about Cooper’s relationships to these different communities, not just the punk poetry scene, but also New Narrative and Queercore. I trace that as a very pivotal point of negotiation. In a way, it’s operating against the expectations of a biography. The trend in biographical writing is to create this hagiography, create this genius individual figure that we follow across time and give thanks for the work they have produced. I think Cooper is a fantastic writer, but I’m also interested in situating him in relation to these various communities and various other writers. This relationship between the individual and the communal is in Cooper’s life and work but it’s also a part of the form of the book as well.

He quit college at the suggestion of Meyers. Even as early as Chapter 1, it becomes clear that this is an extremely privileged person. One could argue his career was possible because he comes from money. Do you agree?

His father was rich. He was also friendly with Nixon and he set up the Cooper Development Cooperation, which manufactured pieces for space shuttles. His mother bankrolled Little Caesar up until a certain point. When she said she wouldn’t do it any longer, it led to the falling out with Tom Clark.

You can’t help being born privileged. And so the key is, what do you do with that? You create something that raises people up. Little Caesar is a case in point. In the pages of the magazine, you have lots of poets, writers and filmmakers contributing to that journal, some of them for the very first time. This is a very pivotal moment in their careers and being put in that magazine, alongside more established names really helps these young writers develop. That is kind of the anarchist dictum. As soon as you get power, distribute it. And I think that’s what we’re thinking about in relation to Cooper’s career. When he gains a certain amount of fame or notoriety, he starts editing books and creating communal spaces that will raise up the careers of lesser known writers that he believes in.

You have two different terminologies in the book. You already mentioned the individual against the communal or the ideas of togetherness and individuality and then there’s the axis of sex-violence-emotion. How did you come up with them, how do you see them figure in his work throughout the years?

It’s difficult for me to give a survey of those two axes. Cooper himself would say he’s continually trying to work out what the relationship between those two things are. But suppose we take his first major poetry collection, Idols. You see in that collection that he’s working out ideas of subjective isolation – solitude as an existential condition. This is something that I argue he inherits from the Marquis de Sade, but unlike him, Cooper doesn’t embrace solitude. He wants to push back against it and really search for the possibility of experiencing an intersubjective encounter with another person. That’s the characteristic mood of Idols. But then, when you get to his next collection, The Tenderness of the Wolves you see an evolution which starts to bring in more ideas around violence and serial killing.

There’s a long piece in The Tenderness of the Wolves focusing on a serial killer named Ray Sexton and his victims. The conceptual evolution that takes place between these two books is from a search for an intersubjective encounter to a more critical take on what intersubjectivity might mean. So intersubjectivity is about the dissolution of boundaries between the self and the other. But if that’s the case, isn’t the sum of these ideas death? And isn’t the search, or the desperate pursuit, of an intersubjective encounter a murderous impetus?

In the character of Ray Sexton you see Cooper trying to work out this idea that a serial killer is pursuing an attempt to make the other part of him. Cooper is also interested in cannibalism and I think that operates in a similar mode. The Tenderness of the Wolves is an interesting example, where we think about the relationship between this axis of individual and communal and also violence and sex. It’s something that’s continually evolving in Cooper’s career.

How do the aesthetics of distance, solitude and communion through sex figure into his work? Are there other writers in the later part of 20th c. who touch upon these ideas?

I’m really interested in LA writers who are not very well known, but I really feel they should be, such as Trinidad, Smith and Skelley. Gerstler is probably the best known from that group. There’s also Gerstler’s partner, Benjamin Weissman. All of these writers to a greater or lesser extent are thinking about separation and distance. In his macabre story Flesh is for Hacking, for instance, Weissman devolves the idea of separation into even a body that has been separated into its constituent parts. I think of these writers when I think of the aesthetics of distance.

One that I am really interested in and I try to follow in the book is Bob Flanagan. He was a performance artist who became known as Bob Flanagan Supermasochist for his masochistic performance art. He’s so widely known in the LA scene as a performance artist and this extravagant masochistic performer, but his poetry isn’t well known at all. In his poetry, he’s really interested in the unitary wholeness of individuals and how relationships are possible or impossible between individuals. He’s enshrining this unitary wholeness in his poetry and his poem Houses starts: “as each unit is a constant, so is Bob.” So you have this integrity to each unit, which is an individual, but it’s interesting that he’s the poet of these units. In his life and performance art he’s so reliant on another individual to inflict pain, to be the person who responds to his desire for pain, who fulfills his sexual needs. And that is generally acknowledged as his partner, Sheree Rose. There’s a dichotomy there, a complicated difference between his sex life and his writing life.

Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies, previously said, in relation to the Marquis de Sade: “Once you make individual freedom the absolute centre of your moral and political universe, you are free to be cruel.” Cooper’s work operates very much between individualism and violence. With solitude being a major theme in his work, is there a possibility for a collective? Is communion possible at all?

Sade is one of Cooper’s biggest influences along with Arthur Rimbaud and Robert Bresson. He’s a pivotal influence and I write in the book that his reading of Sade curses him with the idea that the individual is forever alone. But unlike some other writers who exalt that or unlike the characters in Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, he doesn’t embrace that idea of individual solitude. His work and his life are always about trying to form relationships or trying to figure out the conditions under which a relationship might be possible.

The notion of essential solitude in fact comes from Maurice Blanchot and Blanchot’s reading of Sade is also important to Cooper. As a teenager, he comes across this essay at the same time that he starts reading Sade, and in Blanchot’s work essential solitude is a kind of existential condition but that means that a relationship with another person can’t be assumed and it needs to be created, which in fact means that relationships are imbued with a kind of renewed power; that we need to put in the work to create relationships and friendships with others.

My afterword in the book looks at the idea of friendship and friendship is a key way of thinking, suspended between this idea of the individual and the communal; between an isolated subjectivity and a dissolved selfhood. Provisional alliances in the form of friendships have characterised Cooper’s work since the beginning.

As his work has always revolved around underage sexuality and violence, he’s often been subject to attacks, critical and otherwise. You point out to the past tense acting as a separator from the act. Did you feel that you had to defend the subject matter of his work?

The attack that I feel is most relevant to this discussion is when he received a death threat in 1992. He was reading from Frisk in San Francisco and a group called Hookers Undivided Liberation Army (HULA) handed out leaflets on which “Dennis Cooper Must Die” and “Art is not created in a vacuum” were written. It was a hastily made pamphlet that figured on a causal relationship between the fate of a character in a book and the fate of at-risk teenagers in San Francisco, which seems to me to be a moronic association to begin with. It also said that Cooper’s books were all about exploitation and a kind of lurid depiction of underage sexuality. Cooper was terrified and took the death threat very seriously. This was at a time before every writer kind of expected to have death threats every other day on Twitter. He cancelled the book tour. But then it turned out HULA was just one person. Cooper contacted him over the phone and he admitted he’d never actually even read Cooper’s books. He had just read a review. What I want my book to do is encourage people to actually read Cooper’s work.

Because then you see his work is hardly about the exploitation of individuals, it’s about thinking through a society in which individuals, especially young people, are routinely exploited and routinely sexualised and really indicting a culture in which that is possible.

Absolutely. Francis Bacon said “my painting is not violent, it’s life that is violent.” I think that rings true about Cooper’s work too. What is the effect of him constantly moving, from LA to NYC for example, and then from NYC to Amsterdam and so on? His career seems to be reconstituted in a somewhat different form whenever he moves. How does location figure into how he develops as an artist?

That’s a very interesting observation. I think you’re right, he is very responsive to location, particularly the possibilities that particular location affords him in terms of culture or community, but also the constraints. He responds really well to the constraints. So if you take NYC as an example, when he’s in LA, he and his friends really idolise the figures of the NYC scenes, the New York School of poets but also punk rock, such as Patti Smith. When he’s in LA, he tries to bring over a lot of figures to the scene he perceives to be in NYC into LA. It’s a real generative environment for him. But he then goes to NYC in 1983 and it’s really not what he expected at all. He’s arrived there a little bit too late.

That’s something people always say about NYC. It always seems to be too late by the time anyone has arrived there.

Absolutely. Some of the key things, like the Poetry Project, are all different. The scene has totally changed. And also he starts to realise the demands of NYC sociability and it puts this huge demand on him to constantly be out partying and in contact with people and constantly working with people and so on. He quickly becomes disillusioned with that scene. Around this time AIDS starts really taking over and NYC becomes one of the big epicentres of the epidemic. A lot of his friends are suddenly testing positive for HIV, some of them are dying. He flees. In the book, I try to trace this disillusionment with NYC through his short story called “Wrong”, how the disappointment he finds there and the negativity he felt figures into the construction of this short story. In relation to NYC in particular, it’s hugely generative as a fantasy and then the reality is also generative, but in a very different way.

What do you make of his shift to film and what does that say about the future of literature?

It’s not so much a shift because he’s still writing. He has a novel that will come out next year called I Wished. He’s still writing and he’s still committed to literature as a form. There was a period when a couple of the attempts he made at novels didn’t work out and weren’t working for him but now he seems to be back on track with this novel. In terms of the evolution or his turn to film, I think chronologically his interest in gif novels comes before he started to work on film, so his thinking about the arrangement of visual images and pseudo-moving visual images then conveys him to film. But the pivotal point is when he meets video artist Zac Farley and that’s another example of when friendship is incredibly important to him and generative for his work. He meets Farley and they create collaborative work. It’s not so much that Cooper becomes a filmmaker, it’s that he has this encounter with another fantastically creative person and they find a common ground, which is film. So that’s how I’d make sense of that. He hasn’t left literature behind.

Will you continue to engage with Cooper’s work as an academic?

Writing about someone who’s still alive is interesting because they continue to produce work. I’m very interested in Cooper’s new work and the new film he’s already planned with Zac Farley, which will hopefully come to fruition after the pandemic. I’m really interested in where he goes next. In terms of my future projects, you mentioned that the importance of space was something you picked up on when you were reading the book. My next book is about the interconnections between space and queer biography, how space is central to the work of certain pioneering queer artists and writers. E.M. Forster, for instance, and his relationship to Cambridge, where I live right now; or James Baldwin’s France, or Claude Cahun’s Isle of Jersey. I’m interested in picking through or looking through their relationship to space and what that says about queer identity over the course of the 20th century. That’s the next project and I feel it stems from this book on Dennis Cooper.

Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper is out now by University of Iowa Press