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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

Dennis Cooper On Zine Days (they Were Good) And Transgressive Blogs (there Is Such A Thing)

If you rated magazines on a scale of 100 for megasellers to 0 for practically shunned, poetry journals would barely register in the high minuses. Who exactly is the itsy
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Κείμενο Steve Lafreniere
1.12.07

Photo by Carlotta Manaigo INTERVIEWED BY STEVE LAFRENIERE If you rated magazines on a scale of 100 for megasellers to 0 for practically shunned, poetry journals would barely register in the high minuses. Who exactly is the itsy audience for milquetoast rags like Figdust, Narrativity, and Tarpaulin Sky? Whatever the answer, from the late 70s to mid-80s their ranks suddenly swelled to include porn auteurs, junkie punks, hustler artists, zen careerists, Joe Brainard, Shaun Cassidy, and Andy Warhol. They were all reading or starring in Little Caesar, a dark-carnival literary zine edited by Dennis Cooper and laid out in a back room of the former Venice, California, city hall building. Back then, before his fiction was published in novels and collections like Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period, and before he became an Abject-Lit god, Cooper was a recovering Hollywood glitter kid cum pop-obsessed poet. Today from his current home in Paris he tells us it was a great time for publishing radical words and pissing on obsolete writers—and that something called New Narrative was in the air. Vice: You started Little Caesar in Los Angeles in 1976. What was the idea? Dennis Cooper: I’d been writing a lot of poems and investigating the LA poetry scene with Amy Gerstler, who was my poet friend in college. It didn’t feel very interesting to me, what was going on. I was very, very into the New York School, the whole Saint Mark’s Poetry Project]thing and the presses they were doing. I was madly collecting their books and pamphlets and chapbooks and magazines. And, I don’t know, I had this dream of doing something on a punier scale in LA. Then I went to England in ’76 because I’d heard the punk thing was happening and I went to look at it. It was so energizing to see that stuff, and also the zines they were doing, like Sniffin’ Glue. So when I got back to LA it seemed like the right time to give it a shot myself—have a small group of friends and people that I liked do a magazine without a center. Also try to pull some of the New York stuff in, the music and all. Were there any worthwhile lit journals around then? A few. Particularly inspiring to me was a New York one called A Muzzled Ox. It had pictures, that’s what interested me. It had the usual New York crowd publishing in it, but it was just a little bit more multimedia-looking and I liked that. And then Kenward Elmslie had his magazine Z, and I was really into that and some of the others like The World, and Angel Hair. There was also this press in Boston called Telegraph that was really big to me. They did these small books. They did Patti Smith’s first book. They did Brigid Polk’s Scars. At the same time you were into the rock ’n’ roll rags... Oh yeah. Creem of course was big because of Lester Bangs, and then before that Crawdaddy had been OK. But there were a lot of magazines that came out of the early punk scene, too. Both the English ones and the New York ones like Punk and Trouser Press. In LA Slash was just about to start, and this guy Phast Phreddie had one. I can’t remember what it was called. Those were all happening around the time I started Little Caesar. You saw the connection between certain music and certain literature. Well, I tend to see everything as art, so I was interested in the art in punk. Also there was the connection already going on with Patti Smith and Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, people doing stuff in the music scene who were already writers. Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries also. There was something about it that connected with my aesthetic as a writer. There was a kind of literariness to it. I first saw Little Caesar at the Wax Trax store in Chicago. They had a publications rack with stuff like Morrissey’s zine about the New York Dolls and Throbbing Gristle tracts. But Little Caesar stood out by virtue of being weirdly teenage and grown-up at the same time. Like you’d have a naked picture of Iggy Pop on the cover and then a long archive-worthy interview with Joe Brainard inside. Yep. I recently read that interview again. I’d forgotten that in the early 80s Brainard was one of the biggest artists around. Isn’t that weird? I would solicit all those New York guys for the magazine. Then I’d go there and befriend them. Joe was the sweetest guy. That was around the time that he dropped out of the art world? Yeah. Everybody was always saying, “Joe, when are you gonna fuckin’ do it, make some art again?” But he would just never do it. In the same issue that would have writing by Robert Creeley, Kate Braverman, or Rene Ricard you’d have a Top 5 Fave Records list. That was actually really fun. I was able to get all these crazy people to do it like Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol, Shaun Cassidy, Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick. You made Rimbaud the theme of one issue. I remember this bizarre photo spread of David Wojnarowicz wandering around sleazy New York locales with a Rimbaud mask on, jacking off, etc. How did you get people to do stuff like that? In the beginning I had to write these people, try to be charming, and get them to throw me their worst poem or whatever. But then the magazine got a buzz around it and it became easy. I began publishing people like David Wojnarowicz before anybody else did. The only reason that one happened, actually, is because my friend Tim Dlugos fucked him, and in the process asked him what he did. He said photography and writing, so Tim told him to send something to Little Caesar. He was a newcomer. He was a hustler! Tim bought him. [laughs] Little Caesar was nice-looking for a zine, and it was actually printed. The first issues were stapled, but the rest looked like paperbacks. How did you pay for it? I basically coerced my mother into paying for it. I guilt-tripped her. But my whole thing with Little Caesar was to sell it for incredibly cheap, so it never ever earned back what it cost. And of course the stores never paid me for selling it, so I lost tons of money. Then I got all ambitious. I went offset and started putting photos and art in. I did a crazy Gerard Malanga 800-page or whatever issue. Then with Little Caesar Press I published 26 books, with color covers, and would sell them for two bucks. There got to be a point where my mother said, “I cannot do this anymore!” [laughs] Nowadays you’d get a grant. There were no grants! I’ve never gotten a grant in my life. Was it distributed widely? To some degree, yeah, considering the limitations I had. It was in a bunch of stores in England, Amsterdam, and Germany so I started getting things from over there as well. Like some guy in England would write and say, “I did an interview with Johnny Rotten, do you want it?” Stuff like that. The final issue was “Overlooked and Underrated.” You got poets to do appreciations of their favorite obscure writers. That one was easy. I let Ian Young edit it. I thought it was a little staid, and was disappointed I had to go out on that one. Really? That one issue turned me on to Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch, Jonathan Williams, and Abe Merritt, for fuck’s sake. There was going to be an issue after that, a really amazing one. It had a lot of pictures and was going to cost a lot to print. I got it all together but my mother said she wasn’t going to give me any more money. So that was the end. I’ve thought about doing a Best of Little Caesar, and putting some of that issue in there, but the layout accidentally got thrown away. It would be all yellow now anyway, because I did it on old typesetting machines. Plus getting all the rights would be a complete nightmare now. But my blog seems like such a free space, and I’ve never had any trouble with copyright. So I figure eventually I’ll put as much of Little Caesar as I can on the blog. In the end do you think it was unique? I really don’t know. To me there was never another magazine that seemed like that, and it might have gotten a lot of people thinking. Having the combination of music, art, and writing together was maybe inspiring. People have told me that connecting those made writing seem kind of cool, opening up the whole idea that poetry could be connected to these other things that are more popular. But you’d have to ask other people that one. Tell me about Beyond Baroque, the LA literary center you did events for during the time you were making Little Caesar. The place had been started in the 60s by this old leather guy named George Drury Smith. I started hanging out there in the mid-70s to see readings, but it was very provincial. They never brought in writers from outside their crowd unless they happened to be in town and something fell into place. But they had a typesetting facility, and I started doing Little Caesar there. Bob Flanagan was running the readings, and he hated doing it, so they asked me if I’d be interested in taking over. I totally jumped at it, but I told them I wanted to remake it. I had a whole other idea about how to run the series. They said yeah, fine, because they thought it needed a boost. But there ended up being tremendous hostility toward me. How come? For one thing I abolished open readings. Everyone was furious at me, literally punching me and throwing things in my face. Because that’s all they had. They would go there every week and read their poems at the open reading and that was their thing. And to all the people who had always automatically gotten readings there I said no, you’re not good enough, you can’t read here. As only a 25-year-old can dictate. Right. At the time I thought, “This is just a provincial waste of time and we need to make it more national.” I didn’t see them as being serious about what they were doing. I wanted there to be a lot of energy and I wanted people to be really serious about their writing. So I was picky. There were only about three or four people from the old crowd that I even allowed to be in the new scene. Did you present things beyond the poetry readings? Oh yeah. I brought in performance artists like Tim Miller, Eric Bogosian, Mike Kelley. I had bands play—Wall of Voodoo and local bands. And special theme events. Like we did Rimbaud’s birthday party, and I hired this boy to be Rimbaud and piss on people and spit on them. Were John Doe and Exene Cervenka hanging around Beyond Baroque? They came to readings and played there a few times. Actually, they had been in the workshop there, too. John Doe, Exene Cervenka, and Tom Waits were all going to the poetry workshop at the same time. Wow. And as time went on that new scene started to coalesce under some critic’s umbrella term, “New Narrative.” I remember in the early 80s there were suddenly all these weird new writers everywhere—Jack Skelley, Brad Gooch, Benjamin Weissman, Robert Glück, you, Lynne Tillman, Sam D’Allesandro, Elaine Equi, Gary Indiana, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian—all doing perverse, amazing things with traditional narrative structure and content. Mostly in short stories and poetry, but then later on novels too. Just this explosion of writing. But by the 90s it seemed like publishing had gotten really dull again. Right, there was that period where it felt like that stuff wasn’t happening anymore. The major presses stopped publishing anything adventurous. But there definitely has been a continuation. The whole indie-press thing started up, and now they’re really kicking ass. You’re starting to see that kind of work again. All right, let’s talk for a minute about your own press, Little House on the Bowery. The idea was to put out two books a year, and you’re up to… what now? Ten? Eight or nine. How do you describe the writers? See, there’s no one to name these people. With my peers, we all happened at this certain moment where we got named. Transgressive Fiction. Gay Fiction. New Narrative. There was always some name to give us a little bit of a punch. But these people don’t have anything like that. It’s much more underground. I mean, in a couple more years it’ll be a different story, but right now I think we’re at the beginning of something just starting to happen. Who buys them? The audience for the Little House on the Bowery books is hard to nail down too. Richard Hell’s got the Richard Hell crowd. The gay books get the gay thing. Some of the books have sold really well, some of them haven’t sold at all. It depends. My favorite is Userlands. You pulled together writing by people that comment regularly on your blog and published it as a book. I have to say, that idea sounds bound for lame. But in fact it’s a really good collection. A number of people who are in Userlands are now getting agents and finishing books of their own. Great. What about young people supposedly not reading books anymore? It’s actually a lot better than it has been for a while. I have to credit McSweeney’s. I don’t like everything McSweeney’s does. They publish that clever, clever stuff. But then they’ll also publish Vollmann and Lydia Davis and interesting people. McSweeney’s has made a huge difference, more power to them. Also, there’s this whole new group of bands who are more literary again. I know that in my case it’s been incredibly helpful that Deerhunter and Xiu Xiu like my work. There are so many kids buying my books because Jamie Stewart and Brad Cox talk about them. Battles, Liars, Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective—these people actually read and talk about books. So yeah, I think this new wave of bands is helping out. You get a sense of something exciting happening? I get a sense these days of a higher intelligence and a feeling for aesthetics and an interest in language. There are so many interesting young writers that post on my blog all the fucking time. And the independent presses seem to be welcoming them, so if that’s true I think things are going to happen. OK, I want to connect this back to Little Caesar. Your blog, The Weaklings, is also like a “magazine without a center.” Very much so. It evolved over a couple of years into what it is now, to the point where I think of it as my Project. I feel the same kind of excitement about it that I used to feel about fiction. It’s an incredible form—you can contextualize anything in a blog. As an artist it’s really interesting to play around with that. And then there’s an encyclopedic quality that I like, passing on information and alerting people to things. What stands out to me is that a few times a week you give over your daily post to one of the readers to do with as they please, whatever interests or obsessions they may have. Like recently there have been mostly excellent things on Félix Fénéon, Merzbau, Chic, the last place on earth to survive when the sun explodes, Mauve Zone Recordings, how to build a fog machine, the Florida Hog Trail Murders, and Thomas Bernhard. People might also put up their own writing or artwork. That’s usually a recipe for disaster… I know, but there really aren’t any klinkers. There are some weirdos and some this and that. But I’m shocked that we never get bad eggs on there. The politics are great, and there’s no commerce around it at all. The people that come on there are artists or writers, and it matters to them that I can support them and that there’s a whole community of people that can support them. It seems to be helping them as artists. Plus it has an incredible readership now, something like 80,000 to 100,000 hits a day. I try not to think about it. [laughs] It’s one of the only anarchist deals I’ve seen that actually kind of works. Would you consider it that way? Well, the inherent organization of a blog space is not anarchist. It’s more like I own the front page and you can own the journal. But the fact is, that organization of it keeps it going. I do everything I can to not be a power monger on there. At the same time I’m the lure, people come there because of Dennis Cooper, blah blah blah. But I try to disperse the power as much as I can. So there’s a structure in place that holds the anarchism together. You do a lot of posts where you manipulate gay porn, with full nudity, hard-ons, butthole shots. There’s also extremely violent and sexual manga stuff on there. How do you get away with that? I don’t know. I mean, yeah, there’s porn and guro all over the place on there. Maybe they consider me too small fry? During that whole JT LeRoy thing, my first blog got hacked and I thought I’d get in a lot of trouble if I started up again, but it didn’t happen. But, I mean, I have copyright problems on the blog every day. I’ll steal stuff from anybody and put it on there! You’d think they’d get me for that.