Enter at Your Own Risk: The Dangerous Art of Dennis Cooper
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A Discussion with Leora Lev

Why did you compile essays and interviews on Cooper into an anthology?

First, because Dennis Cooper is not only a groundbreaking author, but a cultural force whose body of work has inspired an entire new generation of artists, writers, scholars, and filmmakers of the fin de millennium. His work resists all the categorizations and hierarchizing oppositions that our mainstream culture has increasingly imposed upon literature, art, politics, and individuals, so as to police, monitor, and excise "deviance" from the status quo, within the quickening conservatism of our era. The term "transgressive" has unfortunately been blunted through promiscuous overuse by now, but Cooper's work is transgressive in the original and truest sense of that word; searingly original, intrepid, refusing any previously established aesthetic, cultural, or political norm, tradition, or decorum. Oppositions and labels such as "high" and "low" art, "gay" and "straight" fiction, "normal" and "deviant" (bodies, erotic terrain, sexuality, aesthetics, genres, cultures) are not only undone by Cooper's work, but shown to be riven with agenda-driven faultlines. Such oppositions are replaced by a pure artistry, a kind of burning anarchic integrity, that refuses the comforting but falsificatory moralizing that underwrites much fiction produced within the mainstream literary establishment. These books can't be niched within any shelf in any bookstore. Because of this, Cooper's work had not only been censured, but censored, in ways both explicit and implicit.

And this censure came not only from the right, which you'd expect from a force field that's also tapping our phone lines, monitoring our sex practices in private boudoirs, creating wars based on deception, challenging Roe vs. Wade in the chillingly disingenuous name of "Patriotism," and more, but from the left. Not only was Cooper's work banned by the notoriously homophobic Canadian border patrol, but it garnered him death threats from a queer activist group. And when I began this project, six years ago, much of the little work had been done on Cooper radically misapprehended or conflated his work with a mistaken version or vision of the author himself. The lesson all literature professors teach their students, don't superimpose author onto protagonist(s), was violated.

Thus it was clear that Cooper's work, like that of Joyce, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Sade, and so many others before him, needed to be engaged with in appropriately complex and variegated ways. The anthology, I hoped, would create a public forum in which to address the urgent questions posed by Cooper's fiction, some of which coincide with theirs: how to represent that which defies representation, including psychosexual and existential extremity, abjection and sublimity; how to signify that which our culture occults, represses, or reabsorbs. At the same time, my desire was that the book as an object would itself contest censoring mechanisms harbored by both right and left - the will to disarm or assimilate questions that disrupt conservatist notions of decorum as well as identity politics' well-intentioned but re-essentializing ideologies alike. Finally, I hoped that the volume's own heterogeneity would both reflect that of Cooper's genre-shattering work and enable dialogic exchange across wide spectrums of readers and interlocutors. I've never believed that intellectual inquiry should be limited to academics, especially where the subject is the intersection of transgressive fiction, queer theory, cultural politics, internet ontoepistemologies, popular culture, visual image studies, and the vagaries of desire. That's why I'm glad that voices from fiction writers, filmmakers, artists, and scholars are all represented here.

What process did you go through in finding authors and pieces and then putting them all together?

The serpentine path that this anthology took would make an Umberto Eco plot look like a primer a la "See Spot Run" ! I began by contacting potential contributors who had shown interest in Cooper's work or related areas such as sexuality or cultural studies. But when I began this process, six years ago, there was surprisingly little scholarship on Cooper, and it also became clear that people were, as John Waters observes, skittish about enaging with his oeuvre. Thus, it was a painstaking process. However, folk like Earl Jackson, Jr., who'd done early, brilliant work on Cooper and queer theory in his book Strategies of Deviance, permitted me to use this work and also committed to writing a new essay for the volume. He also suggested other contributors such as acclaimed avant-garde writers and critics Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian. Killian brought his literary and art critical acumen to an essay on the exhibit based on one of Cooper's novels, Guide to Trust#2. Marvin Taylor helped me to locate the previously unpublished William Burroughs prose poem in the New York University Fales Library archive, and James Grauerholz, the acclaimed curator and and executor of Burroughs's estate, kindly agreed to edit this piece. The late Elizabeth Young's innovative essay was reprinted with kind permission of Tony Peake, himself a noted scholar of Derek Jarman and fiction writer, from the landmark volume Shopping in Space, which she'd edited with Graham Caveney. Michael Cunningham, another glorious writer who'd recently won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, expressed support for the project and granted consent for me to include his short essay on Try. Although it took a while to compile the contributor list, every single contributor was professional and collegial. And it was a pleasure to become acquainted with other work of theirs along the way; the volume alchemically opened up worlds within worlds.

I'd also decided that the anthology should reflect the heterogeneity of Cooper's fiction by including art inspired by or created in collaboration with his texts. Thus my yellow brick road also led toward tracking down copyrights for the images from the Guide to Trust#2 exhibit, which had shown in Belgium as well as San Francisco, illustrations by Keith Mayerson from the graphic novel Horror Hospital Unplugged, as well as Nayland Blake's aptly beautiful but uncanny images for the faux children's storyJerk. Fortunately, the curators and artists I encountered were generous in this endeavor, and because of this, an image-text complementarity enhances the volume.

What are your personal impressions of Dennis Cooper?

I was fortunate to be able to interview him back 1995, in LA, for the Boston Phoenix, and can only say that Dennis Cooper has always had an extraordinary integrity. In the same way that his aesthetic modality is sparked by an anarchic sensibility suspicious of any border patrol, his demeanor and interaction with readers, fans, and colleagues is free of any of the hierarchical investments and pretensions harbored by so many literati, academics, and cultural icons. He's not interested in accumulating power or status in the capitalist investment-return system fetishized here and globally; despite the fact that by now he has become a cultural icon, he refuses the usual trappings that accompany such attainments, and engages with interlocutors within a genuine dynamic of exchange, dialogue, and multidisciplinary sharing of work, projects, cultural exegeses. This generosity is currently finding innovative voice in a blog he writes, sharing his experiences and entering into in dialogue with a host of young writers, filmmakers, musicians, and artists. Similarly to his writing, his interpersonal interactions produce more of a Deleuzian mode of nodules or webs of exchange than a Lacanian hierarchy of "sujet supposé savoir" as against a humbled reader/analysand/supplicant/child.

What was your experience interviewing John Waters and why did you choose to do so?

Well, John Waters is the individual who invented an utterly sui generis underground American cinema - who gave birth to Babs Johnson, of fishtail-ball-gown, gun-toting fame; the immortal Egg Lady; Francine Fishpaw; the Madonna of the Laundromat, the naked hitchhiker cum fugitive Tab Hunter; the portly but punked-out Aunt Ida, who tries to fix up her heterosexual nephew with a nice gay florist because "the life of a heterosexual is a sick and boring one" - and co-created the entity that was Divine, "the most beautiful woman in the world." He yanked the shag beige carpet from under mainsteam America for decades to uproarious, subversive, pioneering effect. So the interview was a unique experience, and a privilege indeed.

Mr. Waters has participated in and shaped the major moments of twentieth-century cultural history, and thus brought a huge richness of perspective to the discussion. In addition to his experience creating a gallery of celluloid scenarios and characters forever branded into cinema history, he has also produced an amazing body of multimedia artistic work as well as writings. This, and his familiarity with Warholian innovation, shifting currents in the New York and international art worlds, the French nouveau roman and its Grove brethren, subcultural movements such as the Cockettes (the California hippie transvestite/pagan commune-cabaret), not to mention his stern pedagogical tutelage of maximum security prisoners and intimate knowledge of true crime, brought indispensable insights into Cooper's work and its contexts, our contemporary zeitgeist.

I chose to interview him because his own work and sensibility, although divergent from Cooper's in their comedic tenor, are productively outrageous and disruptive in a way that parallels Cooper's. As he himself says, they're kindred spirits. Inimitable and fearless artists, they both resist categorization, and have been criticized by Moral Majority types as well as supposedly progressive groups. When I saw Mr. Waters make a surprise appearance at the NYU Cooper symposium in 2000, his performance consisted of a brilliant reading of a single line from Cooper that perhaps exemplified the entire oeuvre and was its own exegesis (yes, this is a teaser, and readers will have to look at the interview to see the line!). And despite his international renown, he is the exemplification of a gentleman! He evinced the highest professionalism and courtliness, was a pleasure to work with, and I also learned that his legendary wit just erupts spontaneously, like a subversive manna; it's not premeditated. That renders it all the more astonishing. Being in the presence of such a scintillating, quicksilver imagination was truly extraordinary. He and Cooper are two great cultural iconoclasts, and the interview illuminated both their artistic trajectories, their affinities as well as points de depart. The interview presides over and informs the volume's polylogue in the same way as the Egg Lady proffers her favorite nourishment to all and sundry in Pink Flamingos, and I couldn't be more delighted that it's present in the tome. I hope that readers agree.


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