Interview: Dennis Cooper

Alex Frank talks to Dennis Cooper about his new book of poetry and the moments that haunt him his whole life.

Photographer Gisèle Vienne, DACM
November 07, 2013

Dennis Cooper's poem's explore the good in what's bad

Above: Dennis Cooper’s mixed-media installation for the 2012 Whitney Biennial. 

From the magazine: ISSUE 88, October/November 2013

Dennis Cooper writes beautifully about ugly things. First as a poet in his teenage years in the ’60s, then as a novelist with books like Frisk, The Sluts and The Marbled Swan, Cooper has made a career turning killing sprees, snuff pornography, cannibalism and necrophilia into sources of gorgeous prose and serious emotion. He’s one of those brave writers that taps into the dangerous feelings that so many only pretend not to think about, and in turn, his books can make you feel less alone. A new collection of his poetry, The Weaklings, will be released this fall by Sententia Books. In it, he revisits his first medium to explore the things, both happy and sad, that haunt us our whole lives.

How’d you get into poetry? I was a dark kid and I had all of these strange fantasies, but they were really hard to talk about. I wanted to write about what I was doing—being oppressed by my parents, doing a lot of drugs, wanting to get laid all the time, being interested in weird movies and weird music. I was this strange, weird, druggy guy, and it gave me some sort of purpose.

Many of these poems describe how emotional and volatile it is to be a teenager—why are you still interested in that time, after all of these years? I don’t know, I’ve always gone there. I may look my age but I’ve never felt adult. Most of my friends are much younger than
me and always have been, and I must have an emotional life that is similar to young people’s emotional lives. I’m just someone who thinks that with getting older you lose stuff as much as you learn stuff.

Are you nostalgic then? I’m very, very afraid of nostalgia. That’s how you get old, you know? You stop looking for really intense emotional experiences, and I don’t want to do that. I’m trying to investigate all of this in my work in a truthful kind of way—there’s a wisdom and freedom to youth, and I want to hold on to that.

Elliott Smith pops up in one of the poems. Why? I’ve always been incredibly into music, and there’s a resemblance between poetry and lyrics. Elliott’s music was beautiful and uncompromising. It’s very rare where you find someone who does emotive music that’s so carefully
modulated that he can become very deep and expressive without being cheesy, or becoming sentimental or becoming confessional. He was brilliant at it.

Some poems mention George Miles, a friend from your youth who’s been at the center of a lot of your fiction. Who was he? I met him when he was 12 and I was 15. He took acid and he was tripping out and his brother asked me to help him down from his trip, because he knew I had taken a lot of acid in my life. And George and I bonded and became incredibly close. He developed a severe bipolar disorder and a lot of our friendship was me taking care of him—he completely depended on me because I was the only person who would put up with him. I really loved him and he really loved me, but we weren’t boyfriends or anything. We had a brief relationship in the early ’80s, when we were in our 20s, and he was the most important person in my life. And then he killed himself. Ever since, he’s been the model for pretty much all of my characters, physically, temperamentally and intellectually. He was a very complicated, very lovely boy, and it just ended very badly.

Why revisit all that difficulty? I don’t know—he just really haunts me. Being young is kind of a dangerous time. People take a lot of chances. I did all kinds of stuff that I can’t believe I did. Or just that feeling where if you have a crush on someone it’s like the most intense thing ever. The longing and feeling—the connection you make with people—is so incredibly intense, and I like thinking about it.

Even with all these dark moments, the theme that’s most pervasive in the book is the kind of friendships you develop when you’re a kid. Friendship is really important, and it’s important to keep that knowledge that it’s important, otherwise you keep not making a lot of new friends. You end up with the old friends that you’ve had forever. I love the possibility that you could meet someone tomorrow and they could be the most important person you’ve ever met in your life. Last year, I met this guy who is my soulmate and it’s the first time since George that I feel this incredibly deep connection with someone. I’m over the moon with excitement about it. I guess I’m just always looking for that incredibly intense connection—and when it happens, no matter when, it’s beautiful.

Interview: Dennis Cooper