The dA-Zed guide to Dennis Cooper

A guide to the renegade author, publisher and screenwriter behind the week's Visionary films

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This week's Visionary is LA directing duo Focus Creeps, directing a series of films written by Dennis Cooper. A renegade author since his first punk publishings in late 70s Cali, he has fired readers and inspired four generations of writers, filmmakers, weirdos and the rest of us. Now, books editor Stuart Hammond, who had the honour of speaking to Dennis just a few months ago at home in Paris, takes you though Cooper's world in 26 short letters. 

 

A IS FOR ADOLESENCE 

Teenagers – particularly teenage boys – have always been central to Cooper’s work. Whether they’re thinking, talking, kissing, fucking, being fisted, stabbed, rimmed, raped, murdered and/or cut up, adolescent lads have been the focus of his writing from the outset. Cooper’s books are always much more interested in the young than the old. “The fact that teenagers were routinely disrespected, objectified, exploited, and disempowered was a huge issue to me then [when he was 15],” he has said “and one that has remained very important to me as I’ve become an adult.”

B IS FOR BEYOND BAROQUE 

Founded in Venice, California in 1968, the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Centre is a renowned haven for LA’s alternative literary culture, with frequent live readings and performances, free workshops, a bookshop and a massive chapbook/small press/zine archive. It’s still going and is presumably still cool as shit. Cooper served as its director of programming from 1979-1983.

C IS FOR CURATING

Since he co-curated (with Rich Hawkin) Against Nature: A Group Show of Work by Homosexual Men at LACE in Los Angeles in 1989, Cooper has shown a great knack for putting on a show in the art world. He’s curated exhibitions in LA, New York, London and recently the Pompidou Centre in Paris. His personal blog is also one colossal curatorial project; much of it generously dedicated to an endless stream of fabulous recommendations. It’s been called “The best example of audience interaction that any major author has attempted.” That seems about right.

D IS FOR DRUGS

Pretty much every drug worth doing has been done liberally and with gusto in Cooper’s body of work. He also has, of course, a body of experience in getting bollocksed-up. In his interview in the prestigious Paris Review in 2011, Cooper ‘fessed to “a lot of experiments with drugs and with using drug states to think about what writing couldn’t or could or shouldn’t or should do and as opportunities to write in newer or freer ways, using the drugs reordering of my priorities as guides.” Which seems fair enough.

E IS FOR ENGLAND

In 1976, Cooper moved from California to London and got stuck into the punk scene here. He made zines and developed a fascination with British bands that has endured. ‘Alex Johns,’ a character in his 1997 novel Guide, was based entirely on notorious bass-twanging berk Alex James from Blur. ‘Dennis,’ the novel’s narrator, describes Alex as “an insecure, self-involved, artsy borderline alcoholic” and then relates his Rohypnol-induced anal rape. The real Alex James famously backed-out of an interview with the novelist, presumably because he is a dweeb.

F IS FOR FRANCE

Much more so than in England, Cooper has enjoyed fulsome critical acclaim and public renown in France, even though his work wasn’t made available there until 1995. His novel The Sluts won the prestigious Prix Sade in 2007. Appropriately enough, he cites his discovery of Sade at 15 as one of the most important moments in his formation as a writer, along with his adolescent encounters with French ledges like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Gide, Genet and Celine. In reading them, he’s said; “I found what I wanted to do with my life.” Plus, dude’s lived in Paris since 2005.

G IS FOR THE GEORGE MILES CYCLE

The seminal sequence of five novels that Cooper released over the space of a decade, Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide and Period feature some of the most gloriously shocking sexual violence ever typed-out. The cycle stems from an attempt on Cooper’s part to write about his relationship with George Miles: “the most important person I’ve ever known.” 15 year-old Dennis befriended the troubled George, talked him down off acid (George was only 12), fell in love with him, lost touch with him for years and then eventually discovered that on the day of his 30th birthday, Miles had killed himself with a shotgun in his childhood bedroom.

H IS FOR HOMOSEXUALITY 

“My own gayness have never really interested me or seemed like an especially important aspect of my personality,” Cooper has said. But chaps bonking other chaps – in all sorts of naughty, often murdery ways – is definitely a thing in the world of his fiction. He’s come in for some bashing for it, and says that “the most violent reactions to my work have always come from gay readers and critics.”

I IS FOR IDOLS

After self-publishing zines and chapbooks of his verses, Idols became Cooper’s first proper collection of poems, published by SeaHorse press in 1979. He’d “been writing and putting together little books of poetry since [he] was a kid,” he says, but Idols got him attention. Tenderness of the Wolves, his next collection, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1981.

J IS FOR JERK

The story of the story Jerk seems to perfectly embody the collaborative and mutative spirit that has enriched Cooper’s work throughout his career. Jerk is a piece of short fiction collected in 2009’s Ugly Man, but before that it was a book made in collaboration with artist Nayland Blake in 1994. Then it became Jerk the radio play in 2007, then Jerk the stage play in 2008, then the brilliantly-titled Jerk / Through Their Tears, a CD/Book made with Gisele Vienne and composer Peter Rehberg in 2011. It’s the jerk that keeps on giving.

K IS FOR KILLING

“I don’t like the fact that when people hear my name they think of serial killing and stuff,” Cooper told me when I interviewed him last year. There is so much amazing stuff going on in his blazing, boundary-pushing writing, but there is no getting away from all the killing. His oeuvre has a way-above-average body count for sure. “For reasons I don’t understand,” he has said “I had been fascinated by the axis of sex and violence for as far back as my memories went.” Luckily for his fans, he’s still working that shit out.

L IS FOR LITTLE CAESAR

Starting its life as a skinny homemade poetry zine that Cooper knocked-up in 1976, Little Caesar grew into a handsome, book-sized mag over the course of its 12 now-legendary issues (the final one was in 1982). An early edition was dedicated entirely to Rimbaud, and the magazine went on to feature contributions from Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Brian Eno, and some guy called Andy Warhol. A publishing company, Little Caesar Press, was another happy upshot of all this: it launched in 1978.

M IS FOR THE MARBLED SWARM

Cooper’s ninth and most recent novel, published in 2011, is set in modern France and is narrated by a thoroughly depraved Parisian aristocrat. It’s a book that doesn’t so much touch on taboos as touch on them, finger them, sniff the finger, lick the finger, chop the finger off and then eat it. It’s big on voyeurism, gruesome sex, incest, child-rape and cannibalism, and it’s another grisly beauty.

N IS FOR NEW YORK CITY

Born in Pasadena, California, and spending his formative years in Los Angeles, Cooper moved to New York in 1983. It was here that he completed his debut novella, began working on the acclaimed George Miles Cycle and had what’s sure to have been a jolly old time, before he up-and- moved to Amsterdam in 1985.

O IS FOR OBSESSION 

Obsessive thoughts, of love, sex and violence – and usually a beguiling combination of all three – run through Cooper’s corpus with incorrigibility. Dealing with dark thoughts by rendering them in clear prose is one of the primary functions of this author’s work. “I shove the knot of my feelings as deep as they’ll go into as compact and smoothed-out a prose style as I can build out off what I know” he wrote in a 1990 story called Container: “But they don’t belong here, any more than a man’s fist belongs in a boy’s ass.”

P IS FOR PORNOGRPAHY 

“I think pornography is a very rich medium, and I’ve studied it closely and learned quite a lot from it” sayeth Dennis. Porn mags, porn videos and porn participants feature in many of his fictions, although the sex in his books, he says, “is never merely hot.” He’s currently in the process of trying to make his own skin flick, but confesses “It’s definitely not a normal porn film.” Surprise!

Q IS FOR QUEER NATION

An American LGBTQ activist organization that never shied from controversy, some tetchy members of the Queer Nation group were so incensed by Cooper’s depictions of predatory men hacking up pretty young boys that they issued him with a death threat. This was back in the 90s though, and Dennis just updated his blog like a minute ago, so I’m pretty sure they still haven’t gone through with it.

R IS FOR RIMMING

Our beloved City Boy author Edmund White once said of Cooper that “his two great themes are murder and rimming.” Bum-licking does indeed come up a lot in these books. “To me, rimming is the most charismatic sex act” the author told the Paris Review (!); “The way the face and the ass affect each other physically and technically during the act of rimming has an emotional charge and is choreographically interesting.”

S IS FOR SAFE

After a few years of putting out poetry collections, Safe was Cooper’s first published work of prose fiction. A novella about the self destructive ‘blank generation’ LA waste cadets he’s always known and loved, it’s about loving people and hurting them, fucking, fucking up, and getting fucked-up on drugs. Start as you mean to go on, then.

T IS FOR THEATRE 

Ever since his first play Them was staged in1984, Cooper has been interested in translating his challenging artistic sensibility to world of theatre. Since his move to Paris he’s worked repeatedly with French artist and theatre practitioner Gisele Vienne. Their 2004 collaborative piece I Apologize was the first of many plays and events the pair have staged, sometimes using puppets and anamatronic dolls to really bolster the affect of unsettling the shit out of the viewer.

U IS FOR UGLY MAN 

2009 short story collection that Cooper has suggested he thinks is his funniest work. It does feature one of the funniest - and indeed very, very best - titles for a short story ever set in print: “One Night in 1979 I Did Too Much Coke and Couldn’t Sleep and Had What I thought Was A Million-Dollar Idea to Write the Definitive Tell-All Book About Glam Rock Based on My Own Personal Experience But This Is as Far as I Got.”

V IS FOR VIOLENCE

Oh man, are we still talking about violence? Get over it! Dennis says all that stabby-rapey stuff’s actually kind of sweet, anyway: “Sweet in the sense that it's done out of awe and fascination, not

out of hatred or resentment. I think my characters see it as a way to understand and create an ultimate form of intimacy with the boys they mutilate.” OK? Just chill.

W IS FOR THE WEAKLINGS (XL)

The Weaklings (XL), Cooper’s first full-length collection of poems in 20 years, got us all excited when it came out last year. We called it such things as “super, super good” and “like a whittled-down wander through his world, with the harrowing murdery gnarliness turned down a bit and the tender touchingness turned right up.” Standing by that.

Y IS FOR YOUNG, ELIZABETH

I guess I’m taking a bit of a liberty by including Elizabeth Young on this list, but I’m doing it because it was her brilliant writing that first turned me on to Dennis Cooper. A wayward and ludicrously-talented literary critic who wrote eloquent defences of transgressive writers like Cooper and Bret Easton Ellis, she died way too soon (in 2001), way too young (at 50) and I wish she was still here. Pandora’s Handbag, her book of essays (featuring some pearly insights into Cooper’s Closer) is perfectly brilliant and you should buy it immediately.

Z IS FOR ZINES

The DIY ethic of the LA punk scene had a huge influence on Cooper, who has been writing, producing, distributing, collecting and archiving self-published zines since his teens. These days he reads a lot of stuff that’s self-published on the internet. “If I’d had the internet when I was a young writer, I’d have loved it” he told me last year; “You can reach people all over the world and check out all these other scenes. When I was young you’d always have to go and hide in a bookstore to read these zines. It’s really comparable: I think the internet still has that spirit.” God bless the old devil! Long live Dennis Cooper!

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