The Charismatic Voice

By Kate WolfJune 28, 2012

The Charismatic Voice
I WAS FIRST INTRODUCED to the writing of Dennis Cooper about fifteen years ago, when I found his books in the “Local Author” section of the Los Feliz Public Library. Reading his early novels from the George Miles Cycle — Try, Frisk, Closer, and Guide — I remember being in turn entranced and (occasionally) horrified, sometimes having to literally hold a book away from my face during particularly gruesome sections (a scene where a character’s entire ass is cut out of their body remains especially vivid in my mind). Whatever the subject matter, what I most took away from Cooper’s work was the tautness of the prose itself, the lyric force and balance of each line. Cooper is an ultimate stylist, capable of making such elements as drugs, sex, and violence flow into something, very often, transcendent. This is not surprising considering the emphasis Cooper places on “voice,” that element of literature so revered, but less discussed in the practical terms of construction and grueling work.

Since his days as a local author, when periodically I would recognize him at such neighborhood haunts as the Onyx Cafe and Skylight Books, Cooper now spends most of his time in Paris, where’s he’s lived on and off since 2005. His most recent book, The Marbled Swarm, his self-proclaimed “French novel,” continues in the vein of previous works, but with a prose that is more dense, layered, labyrinthine, and affected; it’s a kind of complex, incestuous family drama played out in secret passageways and haunted chateaus. Besides his output as a writer and editor (he founded the imprint Little House on Bowery for the publisher Akashic in 1994) Cooper also maintains a blog, The Weaklings, to which his devotion — he replies personally to every comment — is infamous. In addition, he frequently collaborates with theater director and artist Giselle Vienne on productions. Together they were included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, which closed earlier this month.

I met with Cooper at his Los Feliz apartment late last year when he was in town on a book tour for The Marbled Swarm. We spoke about his process for writing that book and others, teenagers, and charisma, as well as aspects of Cooper’s early life in Los Angeles, when he was program director for the literary center Beyond Baroque in Venice and publisher of a magazine, Little Caesar. As I had found him on a previous occasion (we’d met once before in Paris), he was incredibly generous, humorous, and inspiring to talk to.

— Kate Wolf


Before I learned the marbled swarm, or rather, spoiled its chances with my inattentiveness and patchy wit, then screwed up both of my impeding lives, I believed I was my family’s chief ingredient, if not for evidence more solid than my highly complimented looks, then with total confidence.

The Marbled Swarm

Dennis Cooper: The initial goal was to really compress my voice. I’d been working with a flatness and a plainness — I’d gotten interested in hiding all the machinations, making it sound normal, not having as many games in the prose itself, only subtle ones. It was just at a point where it was too comfortable, like in some of the Ugly Man stuff. I wanted to supercharge it. How could I take my voice and make it really compressed? It’s such a long process figuring that stuff out. I fooled around and experimented with different things, it’s always hard for me to remember how I do it. I’m discovering things I can and can’t do along the way; everything gets changed. I was thinking a lot about Rimbaud — I mean, people haven’t really mentioned that. When I was 15, like all kids that age when they read Rimbaud, I wanted to be Rimbaud. I wanted to be a visionary; I wanted to make stuff that was really charismatic and had all these mysteries where you would wonder what they meant. I think I wanted to finally live out my Rimbaud fantasy, but within the sphere of my skills and particular interests. When I started out I wrote this book Safe — my very first novella, which I don’t like anymore — I was trying to do this. It was very enjambed and everything was really intricate — and it was really bad. I thought maybe I knew how to write well enough now that I could finally figure out a way.

[During the writing] I was deliberately staying away from fiction, French fiction, and trying to work with my memory of it and how it had been homogenized into my voice already. When occasionally I found it was going into some particular writer I referenced them, Robbe-Grillet or Bataille or Sade. But it was mostly music and films. I felt like films were safe so I was thinking a lot about certain French films and how they worked. I was far enough away from the language that I thought I could work with that. A really big film was Resnais’s Providence, which is one of my favorites. It has a kind of meta-narrative about a writer who’s writing a book. You don’t really know what’s going on in it for a long time. John Gielgud is this kind of over the hill writer, and he’s drunk all the time, and he’s writing this novel about his family. You see the family and you see the novel he’s writing and everything is fucked up; people will be in rooms and suddenly rooms will change shape. It’s a great film. I was thinking a lot about that and then just odds and ends — Rohmer a little bit because I really love him, Perceval, I love that film, the artificial world of it. And then, just music in general: I was trying to work with how music is mixed and trying to make things happen simultaneously on all these different levels and have it be really three dimensional.

I thought deliberately about [the internet] when I’ve written other books. I mean, with The Sluts obviously, but other books too: how the narrative is structured, how links work, going from page to page and what happens, bookmarking, all that. It wasn’t part of my schematic here, but that makes sense. Maybe that was just already there and I didn’t need to think about it. I was thinking more of particulars, just the particulars of the voice and trying to make it work as a trick. I spend so much time on internet nowadays with the blog. I really don’t know all the ways it’s changed me. It’s certainly influenced how I structure my work, no question about it, because I’m really interested in how the internet works and translating that into pages and text, but also just being isolated in France to a certain degree, and living through the internet with people — living with my friends and so on — that’s part of it. So, sitting in a room in Paris and being on the internet all the time has certainly affected my writing, but I just think of it as being a form that’s the most interesting form there is, and trying to find a way to have it influence the way the prose works because I’m always looking for ways to not do the usual thing. I don’t know how it’s influenced me totally, but I always pay attention to formal structure and style; those are the things I’m always trying to figure out, and then the other stuff is just more intuitive. Even though I talk about the machinations, the other stuff’s happening there. I just don’t have complete access to it.

To feel the impact of this mindfuck, try imagining my voice is something more concrete and physically imposing than the book I hope it will inject then spend eternity in print. Let’s say…it’s a chateau, since that setting is still fresh.

— from The Marbled Swarm

Luke’s at Scott’s. Mason’s home jerking off to a picture of Smear’s bassist, Alex. Alex’s jeans are so tight you can make out his ass. It’s sort of nondescript, like a kid’s. Robert, Tracy, and Chris are several miles across town shooting dope. They’re so fucked up. Pam’s directing a porn film. Goof is the star. He’s twelve and a half. I’m home playing records and writing a novel about the aforementioned people, especially Luke. This is it.

— from Guide

The voice is the skeleton. I think about charisma a lot. When things are charismatic, you can’t really put your finger on it because it isn’t always just that they’re beautiful. There are people who are really attractive, but they don’t really have charisma. It’s there, and then you get to know them and it’s gone. And then there are people who have this incredible allure that keeps you interested in them and what they want to say. I think about it as a way to get around character and plot and psychological stuff; I just think about it really practically. How can I hold their attention, how can I get them interested in this — so they’ll be interested in something deeper, more in it than just the characters and what they’re going to do or what’s going to happen in the end or how the story is going to play out? Just trying to find a way to make the words really charismatic. I mentioned Rimbaud — Rimbaud’s work is incredibly charismatic. That’s a really high example of it. And that’s one thing poetry does, and maybe because I came out of poetry to a certain degree, because poetry’s all about charisma. It just seems like a good way to think about the relationship between the reader and the writer and a way to construct your writing. What’s going to make people continue to read even if nothing’s happening or if it’s confusing? If you can make the writing really charismatic, then you can do almost anything, really. That’s the principle in The Marbled Swarm because it goes all over the place. It’s asking a lot of the reader and it’s very confusing. The idea was that prose would have something about it, a certain quality or a vibrancy, that you would want to know what was going on in the book. Charisma either exists or it doesn’t. That’s what really interests me about trying to construct something that’s charismatic.

My writing is very constructed. It’s not conventional, it’s not about me; I’m not interested in representing my personal feelings. I use books to write about what I want to write about and obviously I wouldn’t write these books if I wasn’t me and I obviously milk my interests because I keep writing about this same subject matter all the time, but no, I never think about me. I just don’t see what I have to do with it. I’m just the guy writing it. I’m not interested in that at all.

I don’t really have a natural writing voice. I have certain rhythms. My voice is constructed out of the great inadequacy of my natural voice. I think of myself as really inarticulate. They always talk about the teenage demotic kind of thing I do with “uhs” and confusion, but that’s just like gentrifying my own voice. It’s always a struggle. I can’t sit down and just write a novel. I spent a year or two trying to figure out this voice and I do that even with novels that are much simpler. First thing I do is spend a great deal of time figuring out what voice I’m going to use. My natural voice is like, blah blah blah on the blog; it’s not charismatic at all. If you like my work and think I’m cool, it’s nice, but if you don’t know who I am, you’d just say, whatever — it’s just blah blah blah. It’s always really hard work to make the style of my work.

We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for. That we do know, or think we know, is nearly always the expression of our superficiality or inattention. Boredom is the threshold to great deeds.

— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project


I’m as interested in what sex can’t give you as what it can. I don’t see lust as a dumbing-down process. Most people fear confusion but I think confusion is the truth and I seek it out.

— Cooper in a Paris Review interview, Fall 2011

Are teenagers confused? They seem confused to us, but I don’t know whether I was confused when I was a teenager. I just think that I wasn’t settled. I had ideals and ambitions that were really contradictory to what the adult world was saying was possible. It interests me that they seem confused or that they are confusing, but I’m not sure that they are. They just have a different perspective. They haven’t been fit into that grid yet of jobs and marriage and money, I mean, they’re not there yet. They’re still supported by their parents; they don’t have to deal with capitalism except in this kind of filtered way, unless they’re kids who are underprivileged and working at McDonalds or something. They’re basically just going to school. That’s the system they have: they go to school, they’re learning things, but they haven’t been overly organized yet. I think that their perspective on the world is as valuable and valid as the adult world. I don’t buy that “young people are foolish and innocent.” Every teenager I’ve ever met has incredibly interesting ideas and the only thing is you go, “God, I don’t think you’re going to be able to do that because the world is so fucking difficult.” But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

Moments like Occupy Wall Street, I mean, that’s the same thing. That’s utopian and it’s never going to work, but it’s beautiful and they’re right. They’re not confused. They believe, and they have belief, and they’re trying to break the system down. People say they’re confused, or they’re naïve, or whatever, but I don’t think they are. And I don’t think teenagers are either. They’re really living in this heightened state. I don’t see wear and tear as bringing maturity. You have to accept these things. You have to accept that you have to make money and you have to accept that people are only going to respect you if you do certain things. But all those things start happening and you lose the charm and charisma of being a teenager; you become like just another adult and people aren’t objectifying you and wanting to fuck you all the time like they do with teenagers. The world changes. Being an artist is a way to stay like a teenager, really. I don’t know [laughing]. I’m “confused.”

I started thinking seriously about being a writer when I was a teenager. I worked hard even though I was shitty at it. I worked really hard at what I wanted to do. Trying to develop a style or a voice or thinking about structure, it’s still there. That’s how I learned to do it — that was my interest, how to make language work and represent these certain things — and I think that just stayed. I never stopped being interested in that stuff.

I still listen to music and I still think new bands are the greatest bands ever. I still want to see blockbuster movies, that’s still the stuff I like. I’m interested in really new things; I believe in them. I believe that they’re totally great. I don’t go like, “oh, this sounds like the Velvet Underground” or “this sounds like Sonic Youth.” Most of my friends my age are very much like that — “yeah, but it’s just like this” — but that’s wrong. It’s like, you don’t matter anymore; this is a whole generation that doesn’t have that reference point. It’s totally inspiring to them and they don’t have that shit in the middle of it. They’re getting something really important from that and you’ve got to pay attention to it because you’re missing out. It doesn’t matter what the 50-year-old you thinks. You don’t know. You’re hampered by your experience.


My mother was a concert pianist and she gave it up to marry my father, which tortured her for the rest of her life. My dad was a very creative guy, he wanted to be a writer — he hopped a train from Oklahoma to Los Angeles with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel under his arm and all that stuff — but he never really did anything with it. It was not an artistic household, that’s for sure. The book shelves were full of Readers Digest condensed books that would just fill out the shelves and make them look like they had books in them so, I don’t know, none of this really came from that. More from friends. First I went to an all boys school called Flintridge. That’s where I kind of blossomed and where I was the school’s writer and artist, and I wrote these parody pieces that everybody liked. Then I got kicked out of school at the end of 11th grade, and I had to go to public high school for the last year, which was very traumatic because Flintridge had been 300 hundred students from 4th grade to 12th grade. It was a very small school.

I think my parents kind of gave up, because I just kept being interested in writing. They got a divorce and a lot my youth was spent in the middle of this horrendous divorce, so they weren’t paying that much attention to us, except in a kind of abusive way. My dad moved out and I didn’t really see him. My mom never really forced us to do anything and, because they were so horrible to us when we were young, she would give me money when I needed it when I was an adult, out of guilt. I just kind of slid by.

My dad was kind of proud of it — when he got older, he was kind of proud of my being a writer. My mom, I don’t know if she was proud or not. She said she was, but she was also really scared that people would read reviews of my books in the L.A. Times and think she was a bad mother. She never read my books. My siblings aren’t interested at all; they have no interest whatsoever. I think my youngest brother might have read a couple a long time ago. Other than that, it’s just like they don’t want to talk about it. My nephew and I are very close, and he wants to be a writer. He’s in University, so he brings it up and they have to sit there, but they don’t want to know about it. So I don’t know where it came from, it just came from me or from having friends in high school that were artistic, because my friends, we were all artists and writers and musicians — that was my group of friends.


They gave me the [programming] job at Beyond Baroque. I was making my magazine in the print shop up there; you could do typesetting stuff, that’s how they knew me. Bob Flanagan was running it right before me. At that point, I knew Amy Gerstler because we went to college together, so we were already friends, and then quickly, basically Amy and I tried to assemble a kind of group; we wanted to have a group of writers. We were very interested in the New York School poets and how the scene around St. Marks was, and we were interested in trying to have a group of writers that we were peers with. Bob Flanagan became our friend and then eventually Benjamin Weissman came in and David Trinidad and other people like Ed Smith and Kim Rosenfield. They’d always come to the readings every Friday — I did readings but I also brought in performance art, movies, and bands, I was really trying to open it up. But we were all very close; we talked all the time and showed each other our work. We were all doing magazines. I was doing Little Caesar and Amy Gerstler had a magazine and David Trinidad had a magazine. We were mostly in our twenties. Michael Silverblatt was part of our gang too and Jim Krusoe — we kind of pulled him in because we thought he was a real poet and a real writer.

When I took over, I kind of got rid of the way it had been and there was a lot of hostility because it had been very much like a local thing — open readings and then maybe a local poet would read — and when I came in it was like, “I want to bring Ron Padgett out, I want to bring these people from New York out,” and so I made it more like you had to be at a certain level to read there or [laughing] be part of my gang, I guess. The old Beyond Baroque people would go the workshops and avoid the readings because they were all pissed off at me, because I wasn’t giving them readings all the time. We were seen as pretty elitist by the local scene. People were amazingly willing to come and read. They would read there for a hundred dollars, maybe two hundred dollars at the most. Also, Little Caesar was kind of a thing, there was interest in that, so I’d bring people out through that too because I had a strong connection with the East Coast through my magazine. The magazine was also kind of connected to Beyond Baroque in some way, not technically, but the scene — Little Caesar and the magazines that Amy and everybody were doing — Beyond Baroque was kind of the focus of it. We pulled people through our connections to our magazines or other poets we knew. ‘76 is when I started [Little Caesar] and I think the last issue was in ‘82 or ‘83. Initially they were more frequent, but then they got really big and it would take me sometimes a year to do one. It just would take so long to put it together. It started coming into its own by the second or third issue. The Rimbaud one was I think number four or five.

Let us introduce ourselves. We're not fifty-year-old patrons of the arts. We're young punks just like you, and just because Kenneth Rexroth's got a name in some crowds doesn't mean a wink's gonna get his rickety old crap in here. He comes through the back door like everyone else.

—Letter from the Editor, Little Caesar, First Issue 1976

I was so into punk, I was trying to combine those two things. Like, “If people could really read poetry, if they had the right context, they’d love poetry.” It worked a little bit. Poets always believe that stuff.

Bob Flanagan and I had a special connection because of his subject matter and my subject matter. I remember feeling like we could talk to each other. Bob, for a long time, didn’t write about it except very cryptically, and I was still writing about it fairly cryptically in the stuff that I put out, but I was able to have these completely honest conversations with him because he was completely cool with what I was into and my fantasies and things, and obviously he was doing things, so we had that connection; that was really strong. And then he met Sheree [Rose] and they kind of became the Bob and Sheree show and they’d have wild parties at their houses. When he got really sick at the end, I didn’t see him so much because it really frightened me. I wish I had now, but it disturbed me so much that I didn’t see him very much towards the end of his life. But for a time, we were great friends. We did collaborations; he was almost my assistant with Little Caesar. He’d help me package them up and send them off to bookstores and stuff because he was a slave so, you could tell him what to do and he loved it. [Laughing] He’d be like, “Yeah great, I’ll do anything you want.” He’s got these wonderful writings, this book called the Book of Medicine, which was kind of his best work, and it’s never been published. There’s almost none of his writing; you just have that journal, The Pain Journal, which really isn’t representative of his prose and poetry, because he was a really wonderful poet. Someone should do a collected reader. He was really very, very good.

When Fred Dewey was running [Beyond Baroque] I kept saying, “You have to do something about this history.” To me, the best thing would be an oral biography of it where we all told our stories. Someone should do something; it’s not really known outside of L.A., and Beyond Baroque itself has had such an amazing history. There was a little documentary that this girl made back then called Fear of Poetry and it was shot about that scene and all of us are in it. She just kind of disappeared. It’s not great but it’s something. But I don’t know what happened to it. There was so much going on. It was a very rich time.

There was no “one” night; there were good nights and really bad nights. I quit because of this really bad night. I got attacked on stage by the writer Kate Braverman who felt I had never given her due. I gave her a reading, and she just really attacked me the whole night. I was just sitting there and I was like, fuck this, I’m done. I got so upset that I was being attacked in my own space that I quit. That was a pretty awful night. There were just rivalries. She didn’t like me. I didn’t pay her enough respect or something. I wasn’t a huge fan of her writing, but she’s a legitimate writer; though, she wasn’t one my favorites and she didn’t like our gang. There was a lot of hatred towards our period at Beyond Baroque. People thought we were really elitist and I don’t know, I guess she was part of that as well.

It evolved. When I left, Benjamin Weissman ran it for a long time and he had his own thing, but he treated it like a really serious place. Then Tosh Berman took it over and he did wonderful things with it as well; everybody did their best, but there was a certain point, they didn’t have any money and they were having troubles. They just decided to become a community organization. I think that’s what they needed to do in order to survive. It serves an important purpose, but we had this mission that we were going to make L.A. a really important poetry center. We wanted people outside of L.A. to recognize the poetry here, make connections and create a scene with the New York poets and the L.A. poets and poets from San Francisco. Because nobody thought about L.A. for poetry: people were just like, L.A. — Charles Bukowski?

L.A. was really different then. Beyond Baroque was the literary place and LACE, when it was downtown, was incredibly vital, and that’s where Mike Kelley and Raymond Pettibon and all these people that became major artists hung out and we were all there. We were all very close and part of the same scene and we’d do collaborations. I don’t think anyone else took it very seriously. I remember writing for ArtForum and it was really hard to get them to take L.A. seriously. It was an exciting time, because we were underdogs.

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LARB Contributor

Kate Wolf is an editor at large for the Los Angeles Review of Books as well as a host and producer of its podcast, The LARB Radio Hour. Her short fiction, criticism, interviews, and essays have appeared in exhibition catalogues and publications including BidounBookforumArt in America, The Nation, East of BorneoPublic FictionX-TRANight Papers — an artists’ newspaper she co-founded and edited with the Night Gallery in Los Angeles from 2011 to 2016 — and on KCRW and McSweeney’s program, The Organist.


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