‘Late-Night Special’: A Conversation between Dennis Cooper and Blake Butler
Dennis Cooper and I met outside of PS122–the East Village-ish space for his glorious Jerk–and stood in the cold and talked for a while. Eventually, Blake Butler and Justin Taylor showed up (he’d be listening–a conversation between him and Josh Cohen is forthcoming). We were in no little rush, since Dennis had to be back at the theater in forty-five minutes. I wanted to do the interview in a Subway. No one thought that was funny. Eventually we ended up in some ill-lit restaurant chosen on a whim. Dennis ordered a quesadilla. He eventually finished it. Dennis is a vegetarian.
I listened. I recorded.
There was such bad music playing in there.
This is a pretty long conversation.
AN: For you guys, what are the borders, if any, between poetry and prose?
BB: Well, you know how I feel about this. I’ve ranted about this before. I think great writing is great writing. I don’t understand–all of the great fiction that I love is based on sound and is beautiful sentences. You can read books for fun, but all of the books you return to, that extend over time, are poetry, or are poetically formed, so, for me, I don’t really care to define the difference. There might be some kind of criterion
DC: I feel the same way. I came out of poetry. It seems to me that there’s a pressure put on language when it has to hold your attention, like fiction does. Poetry has this whole–I mean, you read Ashberry or something, it’s completely floaty, it doesn’t have to have this forward momentum necessarily, but fiction always has to have forward momentum, so that puts a pressure on the sound. There’s a streamlining effect or something. But coming out of poetry, I don’t ever think about that. I don’t care. But I just feel sometimes when there’s paragraphs, and when there’s some sort of narrative somehow in it, that there’s a streamlining that happens. And I try to fight it, basically.
BB: And it seems like there are good examples that do it the other way. Like Beckett. If you broke up Beckett, a lot of that could easily be called poetry. Frank Stanford. That’s a novel. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, that’s like a novel to me, but it’s called poetry just because it’s broken up and unpunctuated.
DC: Also, the best fiction, I think, thinks about the connection between paragraphs like the connection between stanzas in a poem. I always do. This is a way to cause some kind of negative but operative space to happen between the paragraphs. Which I think is really important.
BB: So Dennis, what made you stop focusing as much on poetry, and made you write novels more often?
DC: Well, I started with fiction, but it was just so bad. I always wanted to write novels, but I couldn’t do it for a long time. I had really big ambitions from the beginning. So the poetry: I was able to get the knack of doing that. I was basically publishing poetry to get my chops together. It was just sort of a transition. I still write poetry once in a while.
DC: I think a really great poem is really hard. But just strictly because it’s shorter it’s easier. I know what a great poem is, and I can’t write one. I don’t know the form well enough. Again, Ashberry just writes stuff up really fast, and I don’t know how he does it. I always think of him as the perfect example.
DC: No, no. It’s just a little thing. Sometimes in a novel there’s an effect you want to have, but in poetry, it’s just like: I’m going to do that. Poetry is more emotional for me. I have a specific thing I do in poetry that’s kind of like this loneliness, kind of a weird disconnection. Poetry is for specific things for me.
BB: I started writing poems, too, and I guess it was typical in like finding the beats and then expanding from the beats and then figuring out how to talk more loosely, with a looser tongue, whereas when you read a novel it seems more amorphous in how it was formed, more difficult. You learn ways to speak–the way you speak inside yourself in poems, because like you said, it’s a smaller act, even though it’s harder, in a way. But then once I got to a certain point of seeing the way words can go together, it kind of was a natural progression to want to make a larger object, once I started to understand the bits and pieces. So, not to say maybe that fiction and poetry are the same thing, but that great writing is found in a lot of the same tenets.
AN (stupidly, stuttering a lot): Do any of you find any value in the term prose-poetry?
DC: We were talking the other night about the HTMLGiant anthology, whatever might happen. I was thinking of people who might be included in it, and then I was thinking Mike Young. And I thought, well that’s poetry not fiction, but you know, I always think of his stuff as not being poetry. I mean that’s prose-poetry, right? That’s exactly what you’re talking about. But to me they’re like little fictions.
AN (stuttering severely): You guys write in a sort of prose-poetryish [what the fuck?] kind of way, and there’s a very poetic rhythm, and you use a lot of poetic techniques. But there are still characters, and there’s some semblance of a plot. You can pick the meat of the plot out of the poetry of it. What value do you guys see in plot coming out of sentences?
DC: Energy. That’s all. Moving the eye along, tricking the eye. It’s just a way to trigger and experiment with the reader’s attention span to me.
DC: It was the hardest. It has this big problem, which I never could solve. It has this one problem. That section with the online stuff. It works okay, but that’s the part where the novel becomes too opaque and its machinations are a little more shallow than in the others. It pulls you through the puzzle, but I know that part just doesn’t work ideally.
BB: So how did you reckon with it being in there?
DC: It had to be there. There was no choice. Different parts of the novel have to connect up in very particular ways. I call the process rhyming–things have to rhyme. It’s less like a narrative gradually adding up than a series of things rhyming and forming a whole in a formal way. It was part of that structure, and it had to be there. If that makes any sense at all.
BB: Visually rhyming? Structurally?
DC: It’s hard to explain. You set up something, and it can be like a sound or a visual cue or it can be structural or narrative in essence, and I create a sequence of these things, and they’re imbedded throughout the novel as details or words or phrases, and they create resemblances. Ideally, if you read the novel, you start to notice the resemblances, and the resemblances suggest references and blah blah blah.
BB: Image repetition?
DC: It can take the form of a lot of different things. I’m sorry I can’t explain it well. Creating that system is really laborious and kind of intricate, and it’s as hard to characterize swiftly as it is to do, I guess.
BB: In Period that seems to be more present. Those elements are very clearly defined, at least some of them, and then the other things go around them.
DC: Well that’s the bare bones book of the cycle, the one where the game is on the surface level. That whole book is all about the Dagger stuff, the notations and observations and manipulations of time that character makes. His game is the key to it. That’s like the switchboard.
DC: What do you mean?
AN: There’s a sort of flattening of the body, a de-ritualizing. Anyway, you both deal with the body in very singular ways. It’s sort of reflective of how you both deal with sentences. How do you both approach the body in writing?
BB: That’s pretty much all I talk about. I can’t get over bodies and houses. I think all of my favorite of my own writing and reading all comes back to this–well, Dennis, I’ve always wanted to talk to you about mazes. I don’t know why I can’t get over the mirroring of rooms internally and rooms outside, and the way those feed back and forth. I think that appears endlessly in, at least, books that have a depth to them in narrative.
DC: Where do you think that came from? Can you isolate it?
BB: The way I started talking about it in Ever is particularly when my grandmother, when she was getting old and dying, her husband died–my grandfather–and she thought he was still in the house. She had one house she lived in and another house next to it that she filled with antiques, and she would stay up all night and watch through the window this house. And then she thought there was a person there, and then she thought there was a woman living in the attic who was telling her to leave this house. She kind of set up in her life this mirroring. Houses inside of bodies, and bodies inside of houses. When my grandmother died, the end of her presence as an active person in my life–I think a lot of my writing comes from my mother, and a lot of my mother comes from her. Those relationships are more important to me than anything else. Even when I’m not talking about rooms or bodies, it always does come back to that. My mom is probably writing my books through me. I feel that my grandmother is writing through my mother. I don’t feel like I write. I just feel like I’m typing. It’s a compilation of bodies, and that’s why I can’t stop talking about bodies.
DC: There are strange similarities between my process and Blake’s. This novel I’m working on now is all about bodies as houses as mazes as language construction and vice versa. That’s all it’s about. Those bodies, their structures, the spaces inside of those bodies, all of my work is about that.
BB: It’s inexhaustible, really. You have bodies, also, as sexual objects, objects of sexual violence. I haven’t really gotten into violence–mine is all internalized. What got you interested in writing intensely about sex?
DC: I’ve never been able to figure that out. I mean, I read Sade really young, etc. With Sade, it was just like, if he could do this, I can do that. I really have no idea. I’ve never had any weird thing happen to me. There was never any strange event. There were a lot of serial killers when I grew up. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a simple things. There was just a point where I realized I can do create a novel and a sequence of them just from thinking complexly about the human body.
DC: The violence takes it apart, and there’s nothing there, so then that prioritizes the consciousness or the mind, which is never available. I realized I could do this whole alternative religion thing, and that seemed like a huge area. If I take the body, and I look at the way emotions work inside of the body, and if you add sexuality to it then there’s this weird power, and wanting to simultaneously stop the power and surrender to it, and then you add violence into the mix, and the violence arms the surrender/stop obsession. When I found that combination, it just seemed giant. And it has been. I never stopped writing about that. My work’s not about erotica. People always think my work is about perversion, or sadism, or gayness, but it’s completely uninterested in that stuff. To me, it was really convenient I was gay because I could write about two male bodies, and they make a perfect system. If I were straight, it would’ve been much more complicated. If it’s two males, who have the same body–it’s this kind of doubling, this balance. That’s what really interested me about it.
AN: Would you say that your treatment of bodies is mirrored in your treatment of the sentence as an object?
BB: Books are kind of a mirroring of the same thing. Words inside of sentences inside of paragraphs inside of pages inside of books. It’s all a series of encapsulations. The fun thing, for me, about writing, is almost like programming a computer game or something. Finding those patterns, what you were saying, Dennis, about the rhyming, manipulating that not as if creating a story but as if I were creating a puzzle. It’s just a playful creation.
DC: I really get that whole rhyming and mirroring thing in Scorch Atlas very clearly. The divisions and stuff. I thought, he’s doing this thing too, I totally know what this is. It’s a weirdly similar process for me. To me, on one level, the style is the skin, and then there’s the sentences and words, which form the internal organs, and the punctuation and rhythm in general is the skeleton, and paragraphs are the body parts, etc. And in my stuff, the cycle especially, books are bodies, and the way the cycle is structured is it’s a single body being dismembered. Closer is the body, and then the damage that happens in its narrative destroys the body of the next novel, and so on, and the structure of the each subsequent book has to physically reflect that damage, and that attacking and diminishing and surviving and healing and so on goes all the way through that cycle.
DC: Yeah. You get to Period and there’s virtually nothing left. It’s a body and novel on its deathbed, almost a ghost. So Period is less a body than a magic trick attempting to create the illusion of a body. That’s the only way the book would work–if it played this ridiculous trick. There’s kind of an interplay with The Sluts, because I was already working on The Sluts while I was working on Period. There are no real characters in Period apart from George, and he’s only real because his name can’t be spelled backwards coherently. And who’s dead.
AN: How does all of that happen on the level of the sentence?
BB: The sentence is the cursor, but it has to build. You can take one sentence and put it on the page and have it be powerful, but within the realm of the paragraph, it takes on a different kind of force. That’s why I was saying that having a prose-poem by itself can be strong, and it can be good writing, but it gathers even more power in the accumulation.
DC: And that’s what poetry is. A sentence can be really intense. There’s this Kathy Acker book where she does this whole thing, and then she just stops and says, “I want all of the above to be the sun.” And I was just like, fucking God, how did you do that. You can make a sentence blow someone away. But you can’t make every sentence blow someone away.
BB: Gary Lutz has an interesting way of thinking about that. He’s one of the few writers where maybe every sentence can blow you away. I was reading an interview with him where he said that instead of thinking of the sentence as ideas or narration, every sentence is a conclusion or resolution, where every one of his sentences is a story in itself, in a way. Which is why it takes him ten years to write a book. Or one story a year. And you can read that story over and over again and have no idea how that story was put together.
AN: Blake, I want to ask you a couple of things about the sleep book. Are you still writing with sound in that book? How is the prose happening?
BB: It’s interesting writing non-fiction. Especially since I’ve never done it on a book-length level. Yeah, it’s still coming from sound, but it’s almost coming quicker, because I’m not talking about things that don’t exist totally. I’m talking about things that are inside me, but that I’ve never said, in a way. I’m using the sound to find the best way to say what I want to say, and even in that I have found myself talking without knowing what I’m talking about, which has caused the book to skew. I don’t even think it’s a book of nonfiction necessarily. There are structurally fictional areas that almost sound like something that would be in Ever or any of my other books, but that are still, to me, operating on nonfictional terms. It’s also been interesting, in writing nonfiction, that I’ve been researching. I always said, fuck researching, I just want to talk about what I know intimately myself. But I wrote a lot and then started to do research. Plugging that research into what I already knew allowed me to then go back into the sound part and then give it this other science aspect. I was reading Parables for the Virtual by Brian Massumi, and he’s talking about how nonfiction has died because people have made it into “the essay,” but how nonfiction could be revitalized by taking elements out of totally different fields and such as math, or game theory, and placing them in the middle of this system, and allowing the system to change around it. Which I was doing. And when I read that, it made me even more interested in that idea. And I’m using philosophical ideas, which I’m incorporating in my own way. I’m sure when the book comes out people will tell me, you misread Deleuze here. Of course people are going to say that, because whenever anyone says anything philosophically they get told why they’re wrong. But for me I don’t really care what that is. I’m taking the sentence and I’m putting it in the middle of my system and letting the sentences change around it. So it’s still sound and it’s still out of the body but it’s in this other kind of nether area that has made the book itself turn into a nether area.
DC: So it’s one voice throughout the book?
BB: No. It changes a lot. It has a voice to it. So many books about about how insomnia is hard, and here is how you can cure it. I don’t even know if the book is about insomnia anymore. It’s something else.
AN: It sounds like the process of writing you’re describing is pretty similar to how you write fiction.
BB: It’s totally the exact same. The only thing interesting is bringing in those outside elements and dropping them in, seeing the way my mind works in reaction to them.
AN: The fact that you’re appropriating them makes sense, since they’re coming from inside you.
BB: It feels the same, but it actually feels more exciting than anything I’ve worked on in a while. That might just be because it feels like a different area. Dennis, you have this nonfiction book coming out. You always get this scabby look about it.
DC: It’s not a form I’m ever going to master. I think some things I say in it are kind of interesting. But it’s not a natural form for me. I learned how to do it properly. I know how to fake an essay or review or whatever. I just don’t feel like it has any relationship to my fiction, which is a form I think I understand. When it’s all real life, I can’t write like I write. I could never think about nonfiction the way you’re thinking about it. It’s just not my medium.
BB: It’s unusual. I never thought I could do it until this subject came up.
AN (stuttering stupidly): Do sleep and sound have a relation?
BB: Oh yeah. Maybe that’s what the whole book is about. God, don’t get me started on that. I’ve had sleep trouble my whole life. It kind of develops a way of approaching the world differently. Basically, the state of insomnia is, in a philosophical sense, the self being infiltrated by another presence. You’re constantly seeing your body turned out, like you do in sleep, in dreaming. You can’t control it, but there’s something inside of you that’s playing through your mind. When you’re awake, you start to see these things in a conscious light, in real air, in a way that is very unique. That sleep trouble is probably what guides me to the kind of art that I like. I’ve been going back through all of my older books, and finding that all the lines I would highlight were in some way related to sleep. It’s in almost every book. You can’t pick up a book that doesn’t touch the concept of sleep. And insomnia isn’t the opposite of sleep. It’s the absence of sleep. They’re kind of intertwined more than they are at odds. To me, it’s a consciousness thing, more than it is a restful or awakening thing. Your body starts to take in sound differently. I’ve been talking a lot about holes and tunnels in the body and the way that sounds come into you when you’re aware of it and the way sound comes into you when you’re not aware of it. And how much you can control that. You just become attuned to different kinds of sound when you’re tired. You know what I mean? That’s just an identity thing. A lot of writers have sleeping trouble for the same reason. They get caught up on little things.
AN: Sounds fascinating. And Dennis, the cannibalism book?
DC: Which is barely about cannibalism now.
AN: Is fiction cannibalistic to you?
DC: I suppose. I mean, if I think about that in practical terms–it’s something eating itself. I think of editing and revising and stuff as a kind of self-consumption, I guess.
AN: How do you guys want the body of a reader to respond to a sentence of your own?
DC: Depends on the work.
BB: Well it’s nice that they’re even taking it into their body, first of all. That’s the big problem is getting them to get the sentence in. As long as it gets in there, I’m pretty happy.
DC: There’s this review of Bresson’s films which says something like, “Nothing I’ve ever seen has convulsed me to the depths of my entire being like this.” That’s the goal, but I don’t know. I always think about other writers. Like, it would be cool if someone read this novel and then decided they want to write something.
BB: I talked about this recently. For a long time there was this narrative-as-dream thing. I think that’s going away because people have reckoned with that. People have said, I know I’m reading a book, and you don’t have to hide it. I like to feel manipulated by it. I like to feel pressed upon by it. I have a horrible memory for names and words. If I can remember the way I felt–like maybe I read a paragraph and put the book down. With some of my favorite books I can remember where I was sitting. And how the air was around me. Even more than sentences itself, it’s the aggregation of how they came upon me at a time. Even though I’ve talked a lot about Wallace: his books are alive because there’s this consciousness. I can’t think of anyone else who’s created a book that is a brain thinking, speaking, telling you exactly what is there.
AN: Not in a cerebral sense.
AN: An actual, living thing.
DC: Also, like, the best sentences ever written in the world.
BB: Just these things that leave you in awe of books. More than a story–just like, how the fuck did you do that.
DC: It’s really basic and deep. Like, wow! Fuck! I don’t even know what the effect is. It’s overwhelming.
BB: There’s a real duality. Some books I love get me inspired. But then there’s books like Infinite Jest where I just think: how can I ever try to write after reading this?
AN: I’m content just having this book in the world.
BB: Those are just as valuable. And even if those make you quiet for a while. And when you come back you have that inside of your body. Your mind has been changed by that experience. The best part of it is the conversation.
AN: For me, Wallace could never be a stylistic influence. I could never think, I want to write like this. It’s an organism. A living thing that stands by itself. I incorporate it more as a way of being-in-the-world. Rather than a way of thinking about writing, or a new way of writing. It’s not a specific stylistic element.
BB: Not compartmentalized. Just a part of your experience.
AN: Gets right in your skin. And then your organs. Fills up the whole house.
DC: I tried to imitate him. I thought, how did he do this? I started working with longer sentences. Before I read him, I didn’t like long sentences. You can’t get that effect with a short sentence, man. So after I read him, my sentences got a little longer.
AN: How did it work out?
DC: My sentences are nothing like his. I could never touch that particular genius. But I realized that you could construct one sentence and have consist of fifteen different sentences, and those sentences could work and fight with each other inside in a single space.
BB: There are sensory things in Period, again. When the boy is lying in the ditch and thinking about the environment coming over him. That, to me, felt Wallaceian.
DC: Could be. I don’t remember, but it could be.
BB: You don’t want to be Wallace, but you want to create new environments inside of the household.