black and white cooper dennis - credit Yuri Smirnov (2)

Rigorous Pornography:  A Conversation with Dennis Cooper

by Colin Fitzpatrick

I first learned about Dennis Cooper’s work when a brief summer fling lent me Guide, one of the novels in his George Miles Cycle, the body of work made Cooper a recognizable name in queer and transgressive literature. The visions of gore, pornography, and destructive desires in the cycle is a signature style of Cooper’s that would stick with me as I read his other works. Since the George Miles Cycle, Cooper has ventured into different types of territory such as God Jr., where he describes the inner life of a grieving father. He has also established himself as a cult literary figure with his blog where he directly interacts with his audience and his publishing series, Little House on the Bowery . Cooper’s most recent collection of short stories, Ugly Man, returns to the sort of content that made him well known, while exploring a new level of humor in his work.

When I set off to interview Cooper, I wanted to find an original angle. How many conversations with Dennis Cooper have established writers and well known thinkers published? I’m basically a nobody in my twenties and can’t possibly compete. My idea was to take every line of our conversation and “Cooper-ize” it into a parallel fictional conversation. I sold myself on the idea, a companion piece of fiction to accompany the interview a parallel world where Dennis and I are cruising each other online, both coked out of our minds and sniffing poppers alone in our beds, exploring fantasies of fisting and genital mutilation, desperate for some sort of human connection. Within writing my first couple lines, I experienced firsthand just how rigorous and disciplined Cooper’s creative process must be. Unable to write anything decent after a couple tries, I discarded the project and let this be what it was—an interview about Ugly Man, a discussion of his process, and recent theater works, including a production based on the story Jerk, which will come to New York this January.

With Cooper in Paris and me in New York, we did the conversation via instant messenger. It was supposed to be an ode to the use of new media and internet communication in Cooper’s books, something I’ve always been a fan of. But with the exception of one unexpected event near the end of our conversation, I think it really turned out to just be about convenience. The following is our conversation from mid-October 2009.

me: Hey there! This chat application working for you?

Dennis: hey. yeah, the connection here can be slow and tricky, but i think we’re live

me: Fantastic!  Thanks for agreeing to do this.

Dennis: oh, thank you, seriously

me: So tell me a little about where you’re staying now, Paris. Eating lots of croissants?

Dennis: Not as many as i should. crepes, yes. I’m weak for them. Paris is, you know, kind of exquisite, although it’s a bit gloomy and rainy today. You know the city?

me: I wish I knew the city. I guess that’s why I’m curious.

Dennis: oh, it’s everything you’d hope. it’s strangely almost perfect. come visit.

me: I really should, my sister lives in Ireland and I visit her occasionally and it’s just a short trip. I never seem to make it though

Dennis: it’s super easy and cheap top get here from there, something 60 dollars round trip tops.

me: So one of the reasons I wanted to do this as an online chat has to do with that chapter in one of your previous books, The Sluts. There’s this thing that happens with online conversation, which I think you capture perfectly, where people are kind of incapable of listening to each other properly… thoughts overlap, and there’s a kind of disconnect.

Dennis: Thanks. Truth is, I almost never chat. I avoid doing it whenever possible, for the very reasons you mention, but I love studying the chat formally—very fruitful for thinking about and freshening up the old dialogue problem and such.

me: I come from a generation where it’s part of my daily life, so I found that chapter really easy to relate to. This kind of disconnect between people seems to be a major theme in your work, especially in the stories in Ugly Man. My favorite was “The Anal Retentive Line Editor.”

Dennis: Thanks about the ‘anal’ story. It’s one of the stories in ‘um’ that I’m quite okay with. That disconnect is pretty key to my interests, and I seem to linger in it as much as I can. The chat’s a great invention to borrow from, and I love message boards as well. I’m obsessed with YouTube comments at the moment.

me: It’s really amazing what people will say with pseudo-anonymity. You have this ability to represent multiple models of communication in the way you tell stories, something really key to “Anal” where he goes between edit notes and email communication. How do you choose the form your characters communicate in? Do you say to yourself “this is a chat board story?” Or do you have a story in mind first and then choose a medium?

Dennis: I guess they’re simultaneous. Form and structure are as important to me as the content, and I can’t really distinguish them, so I think I’ve trained myself to find fiction ideas interesting only when they come wedded to an idea about form that feels really challenging both to the story and to me. I guess my overall interest is in finding a way for me to enter the material that will remove it from anyone else’s ownership of it or something, so the mode or form has to be in place from the beginning. It’s hard to explain, I guess.

I have a deep fear of the conventional in writing for whatever reason. I can’t just write a story or construct a dialogue in a relaxed way. I have this weird need to try to reinvent the wheel and then fail in an inventive way that becomes the point. Or something, ha ha. I get tangled easily when I try to explain things. I’m from California.

me: That’s funny you bring up the “west coast” nature of your writing. I grew up in Seattle and find your stories intensely emotional and often can relate to the characters. However, I was talking to a friend from the east coast who found your characters difficult to understand but loved the your literary rigor.

Dennis: Yeah, that divide happens a lot. It’s strange. There’s this schism in my readership between those who relate to the work emotionally and feel it more than they assess it. Then there are those who are primarily or only interested in my constructions and sort of write off my characters’ inarticulateness and confusion as necessary evils or something. To me, obviously, the work is totally unified, but it doesn’t read like that. I mean, there are people who get it all in one swoop, but there are also these real poles in my work’s audience. It’s curious.

me: We have a reputation for being a bunch of inarticulate slackers out west, I guess. I was introduced to a couple genres in your writing in Ugly Man that I hadn’t seen you do before. Number one being the plays that appear. Did you see any of these ever being performed? I couldn’t help but try and picture someone directing “The Ash Gray Proclamation” while I was reading it.

Dennis: Actually, I tried to adapt parts of ‘TAGP’ into a porn film last year, but the script scared every possible producer and financier shitless. ‘Knife/Tape/Rope’ was performed a few times in New York in the 80s, and I actually performed in it. “Jerk” has been adapted into a theater piece that’s been touring Europe and Asia for a year now. It’s coming to NYC in January. I’m very involved in that production as it’s part of an ongoing collaboration I’m doing with French director, Gisele Vienne. We’re working on our fifth piece now.

I think the use of a play-like form in some of the Ugly Man work comes from having concentrated on writing for theater in the last four years. It’s an interesting form, tight but suggestive in a particular way, at least in the kind of the experimental work I’m doing with her.

me: I’ll definitely have to check out “Jerk” when it makes it out to New York. The reason I asked is that the inclusion of the “You” character in “The Ash Gray Proclamation” makes me wonder if these were solely intended to be read on the page and not performed. But I guess it could be staged with some sort of monitor over the stage prompting the audience to say the lines themselves… which would be kind of a riot, ha ha.

Dennis: It was written totally for the page, as a play incapable of being produced, I guess, i.e. the use of that ‘you’ and other un-theatrical stuff. I like writing fiction that can’t be anything else, which is partly why movies almost never get made of my books. But a few people have talked to me about adapting ‘TAGP’ for theater or film. I could see film maybe, and I did think it would make a heck of a hot porn film, obviously, ha ha.

me: Awesome porn film for sure. I love the part where the Afgahni and the kid are passing the dead boy’s ass between themselves. Porn is obviously a huge source of inspiration for your work, and different themes of desire are central in the stories. But you definitely don’t explore the vanilla stuff. When I lend your books to my straight friends I have to explain that there’s a lot of value there, but they have to be ok with intense descriptions of fisting, necrophilia, guts getting fucked, kiddie porn, etc. Where does your personal interest in these extreme desires come from?

Dennis: Well, ultimately, i don’t know where it came from. It’s been there since I was a kid. Something might have inspired or triggered it, i don’t know. I can’t think of anything dramatic back then that would have instigated those particular fascinations.

As a writer, the decision to concentrate on those things has to do with a lot of things. I see extreme desires and acts as secret and unexplored ways into really deep, secret, individualized emotions and fantasy truths, and I’m interested in the challenge of trying to extract and represent such language-defying and confused, confusing things. So there’s that. I also think those extremes have a particular and intense form of energy, both for me to use in writing and for the reader to use in terms of their attention span and their reading momentum and things like that. Employing them gives the work a lot of force, an uncontrollable force in some way, and I love how difficult it is to negotiate both that kind of material and the problem of getting around a natural reaction of shock and disgust in the reader without reducing the horror to something superficial like in, well, horror movies, which is where those kinds of extremes usually end up.

So I don’t know why I’m so gripped by extreme subject matter, but, as a writer, it’s such a rich and complex and exciting and frightening and mostly unexamined and inexhaustible area to work in, I think, so I feel lucky to have wound up with a head full of such scary things on that level. I don’t know if that answers your question, though.

me: That makes sense. You seem to have a sense of humor about it too. I feel like you’re almost poking fun at yourself with the list of Russian web sites in Ugly Man.

Dennis: Oh, sure. I hope so. In Ugly Man specifically, I was interested in seeing what would happen to what I guess you’d call my characteristic subject matter if I put it in service of comedy, pitted the lightness and formal restrictions of comedy and jokes against the kind of roiling nature of the material. I’ve always used comedy in my writing, but more as a sedative or temporary distraction, and I wanted to see what would happen if i made some kind of comedy the primary goal. So like in the Russian porn sites piece—and all those sites are real, FYI—the comedy comes out on top, and in others the comedy ended up being more troubled and troubling.

me: I definitely LOL’d while reading a fair number of the pieces. I guess the title story would be a place where the comedy is more “troubling?” The short story titled “Ugly Man” has this ability to be monumentally succinct and still run a whole gamut of emotions.

Dennis: oh, thank you. yeah, that piece is a good example of the ‘problem’ and what resulted. Generally, whenever representing emotion was the important goal, the comedy had the hardest time, which isn’t surprising, I guess.

me: It brought me to my next point. I feel like queer writers can never really avoid the topics of disease especially in works that discuss sex, something key in the “Ugly Man” story. Where exactly do you see the place of HIV/AIDS discussions in your work, where the characters are often engaged in risky activity?

Dennis: Well, in general, HIV/AIDS gets represented in my work via a particular kind of fear or danger or myopia or denial or something that i construct and try to represent when that kind of sex comes into play in the work. I’m very interested in trying to telegraph meaning or coerce meaning to dawn upon the reader rather than making statements of any kind. I have this idea that my work should have total trust in and respect for my readers, and I’m interested in trying to create a kind of power sharing situation where even though I wrote the work and am in total control of its content and intended effect, the reader should feel he or she has the power to decide what the work means. I just mean in terms of HIV, I’m interested in how readers will deal with it not being explicitly addressed. I’m interested in representing the emotional and psychological states, the deep and complicated aspects that go along with engaging in risky sexual behavior, in a pure representation of the acts perhaps, and naming names seems both unnecessary and potentially reductive in a way. i guess the negativities and absences in the representations of that kind of sex are how i deal with the subject, basically.

me: Well, a lot of your characters have a death wish. I think your approach is interesting from a queer literature point of view where there’s often this token HIV positive character that is either desperately humanized or stigmatized.

Off topic, my good buddy Elliott just chatted me while we’ve been talking and says “Hi.” I guess you guys used to talk on your blog all the time.

Dennis: Give Elliott my warmest “hey.” I miss him on the blog.

me: I feel really bad, because I am going to run out of batteries on my laptop. So I have to cut it short here.

But Elliott says he should be in touch with you. He’s been working for a porn company out in San Francisco and probably would be interested in doing a murder porn. Maybe the porn version of “TAGP” could still be a possibility.

Dennis: Okay, that’s fine. I thank you a lot, man. If you want more from me, just ask. and, mm, interesting about Elliott and porn thing. Thanks.

me: Small world right? have a nice evening in Paris.

Dennis: Spooky, ha ha. okay, thanks again, man. enjoy the City. Talk to you later.

-Colin Fitzpatrick is an avid reader of fiction, graduate of NYU’s Gallatin, and currently produces and edits Web sites for PBS and New York Public Television. To entertain his interest in comedic writing, he created a blog at where he currently writes for fun.

(Photo credit: Yuri Smirnov)

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Nice interview Colin!

Joshua Sanchez added these pithy words on Nov 03 09 at 1:31 pm

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