Dennis Cooper started publishing his poetry in the seventies in small presses. In the early eighties he wrote his first book of fiction, Safe, which was followed by a series of novels that earned him a respectable place in the underground literary scene. His subjects include pornography and sex. He has lived in Paris for the last several years and is the first American to win the Prix Sade. Of his writing, Kathy Acker wrote, “Cooper’s language is at first intense, nearly minimal, then suddenly, it ascends into vision." The Weaklings (XL), his first collection of poetry in nearly twenty years, is just out this fall. His website is dennis-cooper.net.
— Brandon Hobson and Nicolle Elizabeth
THE BELIEVER: When did you realize you were a writer?
DENNIS COOPER: I wrote terrible poems and stories kind of obsessively starting when I was a little kid. When I was fifteen, I guess I decided that meant something. I’d always been a kind of fucked up, strange boy with an adventurous imagination, and weird fears and fascinations, and very few friends. At fifteen, I discovered avant-garde literature and realized that writing could be as weirdly structured as my imagination. I also started to read writers like Sade and Genet and realized that my seemingly bizarre interests could be taken seriously if they were given the right form. Also, people at my high school started saying I was a good writer around then. That made a big difference.
BLVR: You work in many mediums aside from writing as well (though, to my mind, they’re all writing, in a way). How did you start to pursue the arts?
DC: Before I decided to concentrate on writing, I drew pictures and painted, and made Super 8 experimental movies. I was the singer in three rock bands, and I wrote and staged and acted in plays for kids in my neighborhood. So I was kind of all over the place in my interests and far-flung in terms of where my creativity wanted to end up. And, for whatever reason, most of my closest friends have always been visual artists and performers.
BLVR: Some people might consider you a person with good taste. Do you think trends in writing actually even matter?
DC: It depends. Trends in writing can be fun and indicative of something fresh and maybe even innovative. I guess I tend to think of the word trend as a reductive media and/or social networking label for what are usually literary groundswells or movements. So-called "Alt Lit," for example, is getting called a trend by wary outsiders, but I see it as this massive emergence of often very interesting, singular new writers and writing fans and publishers, some of whom are literally changing the rules of writing and readership and opening up new possibilities for writing’s presentation and publishing. The fact that what they’re doing is inadvertently trendy doesn’t matter at all, but they matter a lot.
BLVR: Are you comfortable talking about the novel you’re currently working on? If so, how is it different from your other books?
DC: I’m always really wary of talking about a novel when I’m working on it. My novels tend to take a long time to become exactly what they’re going to be. They’re fluid messes until I’ve done a ton of editing and refining and rewriting. When I write novels, I always make related scrapbooks to help me organize and test my intentions. For the novel I’m working on, I’m making the scrapbook on my blog, and I guess that’s the way I feel okay describing it. Here’s the latest scrapbook ‘page’, for instance. Otherwise, I can say that this is the first novel I’ve ever written that is wholly personal and grounded in my real life. And I guess I can say in a general, basic way that it’s about someone I love very much, and it’s about that love’s effect on my writing and me.
BLVR: How do you feel your work has changed most over the years? Do you feel it’s becoming less vulgar or violent? Are you interested in writing about different things than you were when you were younger?
DC: There was a big change around the year 2000. That’s when I finished the cycle of five interconnected novels that I had been working on for ten years, in which there were a lot of preordained rules and restrictions regarding the style, structures and content I could use. After that, I decided to write whatever kind of novels I wanted. I don’t think my work was ever vulgar, so I don’t know what to say about that. As for violence, well, The Sluts, which is probably my most violent novel, wasn’t that long ago, and more than one critic described my most recent novel as glorified torture porn, so I don’t know that my work has deliberately eased up in that department. I’ve always been interested in trying to figure out what my writing is capable or incapable of doing well, and I always try to write about things I haven’t broached before. But ever since I was a kid, I’ve written from a particular state of fear and excitement and confusion and emotional turmoil, and what I write about is determined by that. I think that, for instance, God Jr. and My Loose Thread were really different for me at the time I wrote them, and the novel I’m working on right now is very unlike anything I’ve attempted before.
BLVR: Has living in France affected your work in any way? You’ve lived in many places. Which has offered you the most artistically? Emotionally?
DC: Yes, living in Paris has affected my writing hugely. On the most basic level, my last novel The Marbled Swarm was set here and was largely about my misunderstandings and confusion about the French language, which I only grasp in the most rudimentary sense. Also,I’ve been working a lot, writing scenarios and texts for a French theater director, Gisele Vienne. Writing for theater has changed my writing. I would say that France has offered my work the most artistically, and maybe emotionally too, but when I lived in Amsterdam for almost three years in the mid-80s, I was so isolated and lonely and fucked up that it forced me to start writing my George Miles Cycle books, which I’d been planning and experimenting with for years. So, in a negative but ultimately great way, living there had a big emotional payoff.
BLVR: What have you read recently that you would recommend?
DC: Most recently, I’ve read and would highly recommend Scott McClanahan’s Hill William (Tyrant), Michael Salerno & Peter Sotos’s Home (Kiddiepunk), Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton (Les Figues), Christopher Higgs’s Becoming Monster (The Cupboard), Darby Larson’s Irritant (Blue Square), Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, and Sean Kilpatrick’s Gil the Nihilist (Lazy Fascist).