Hello Diarmuid! Congratulations on the release of WRONG, which I know was highly anticipated for many, and thank you for catching up with me.
WRONG was released at the beginning of June from the University of Iowa Press and it’s cover is popping up on my feed constantly. Has life been different after the book’s release?
Thanks man, and thanks for your awesome review of the book for 3:AM. It was super gratifying to read your take!
The release itself was weird. Pandemic lockdown and the George Floyd protests—kind of makes your small contribution to culture minuscule by comparison you know. And there were practical issues too like riots near the distribution centre in Chicago shut down the warehouse so the books couldn’t get sent out. Because of all that I haven’t really thought about before/after…
The process of putting out a book like this is very accretive, incremental. I’ve been working on it for a long time. Publishing it has felt in some ways as just another part of the process. Maybe not even the final one.
Wow, yes, the social turbulence surrounding the pandemic and large-scale racial justice protests would surely affect the circumstances of a book’s release, especially when the publisher is in the States.
I know from your interview with Grant Maierhofer at Ligeia Magazine that your first experience with DC’s writing was reading FRISK in graduate school. While this experience surely made an impression, had you already read Sade, Rimbaud, Genet? How far back does your relationship with this particular lineage of transgressive literature reach?
Good question! I grew up in rural Ireland, not much going on there in terms of transgressive literature I have to say. But I did learn French and that opened the door to a lot of writing that was more challenging than what was around me. So yeah, after high school when I left the countryside for Dublin, I read a lot of Sade and Rimbaud and Bataille—those guys, which led me to Acker and Burroughs. I never really got into Genet.
Finding this literary history while simultaneously moving from a rural hometown to the city must have had profound implications for a young person. How would you say early experiences with writers (or writing) like this informed your transition from being a fan of Cooper’s writing into writing about him on a scholarly level?
I mean it wasn’t just writing you know, it was a whole scene in Dublin. I got into piercing and body modification and punk music—much of that had to do with the fact that I was crazy about this crusty punk guy who looked like Zack De La Rocha.
Anyway to answer your question, I came to Cooper’s work in an academic classroom, so approaching him in a scholarly way seemed natural. I was also lucky enough to have teachers that were really open minded in terms of what was a legit object of study.
I suppose that beyond the realm of literature is a living world that literature inspires and is inspired by. That primary necessity of alternative culture, subculture, queer culture seems to be as much a subject of WRONG as DC himself.
While working on WRONG for such an extended period of time in an academic setting did you ever feel separated from the lifeblood of the cultures or movements you were researching?
Absolutely! Most of the communities and movements I talk about like LA’s punk poetry scene or Queercore are now in the distant past. They’re also largely North American and although I’ve spent time in the States, I grew up in Ireland and live in the UK so in terms of my experience there’s physical as well as temporal distance there.
But that’s a really valuable position to be in. It means you can get a good, impartial read on what those communities were like for the people who were part of them; it also makes it easier to see the bigger picture and show people why they should care about these small, relatively unknown scenes. When you’re immersed in a culture, it’s hard to see it in context. A more distanced perspective can allow you to do that.
As I stated in my review over at 3:AM, I am not very well-read in the realm of biography, but reading WRONG was appealing to me not only in literary ways, but in broader aesthetic ways. Where WRONG deviates from a handful of literary biographies that I’ve read is that somehow it it fulfills its biographical function (creating a mosaic-like structure of the life and work of a living artist in DC) but transcends the normative biographical definition by doing many other things simultaneously.
In this way I think the book would be of great appeal not only to writers but to visual artists as well. Your work in the archives connecting DC’s work to various movements in art not to mention a quite vast incorporation of critical theory and philosophy make for a very well-rounded art-historical experience. Was it a goal to have the book read in different ways to different people?
Yes, absolutely. You see the thing is, as you mention, I read FRISK first in grad school but my next step was logging onto Cooper’s blog and becoming part of the community on there, which has always been such a diverse group. There are readers, writers, visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, academics on there, fans and friends… so as much as possible I wanted the book to please those kinds of people, who had been so important to my development as a thinker and a writer.
There are important reasons why I decided not to write a conventional literary biography like the ones you mentioned in your review. Like, I don’t think you can approach a subject like Cooper in a traditional way, it just doesn’t work. But also, personally that kind of biographical writing doesn’t excite me much.
I have to applaud you in executing this, over such a long period of research, while preserving the subcultural, anarchical and queer spirit in the scope of this project.
A large part of the book deals with the conflict, or potentially irreconcilable differences between the individual and the other. Concepts of Sadean egocentrism, Bressonean distance, punk anarchism and Rimbaud’s radical individuality play through. These are formative elements in DC’s aesthetic but as you argue, there is always a feeling that he will persist in this absurd, conceivably futile exercise toward intersubjectivity. This insistence on a heterogenous movement toward something shared, perhaps love, or perhaps a collective liberation from forces of control. As you stated, this seems like what the blog form offers, and friendship and camaraderie could be argued as DC’s most prolific output. Do you think certain people have a hard time reconciling the often private, dark, or obscene qualities of DC’s writing with these lighter warmer qualities of interconnection?
I don’t know how someone could read Cooper and not feel that imposition of distance and a simultaneous yearning for connection. It’s possible the people you’re taking about haven’t really read Cooper. Or they’ve read him in a very particular context and brought their assumptions to bear on their experience. It’s understandable: at one point he was often grouped together with the likes of Bret Easton Ellis—whose work is all about disconnection and alienation. Part of what I tried to do in the book was provide a new context for understanding Cooper, which sheds more light on the importance of connection and community.
This is very evident in WRONG as you offer personal arguments towards this end as well as walk them through discursive historical timelines.
As WRONG is your first book, for many it may be the primary introduction to your name and to your work. Outside of biographical writing, you have noted performance as a medium you work within, specifically your project TRASH!, described as “a performance programme and academic symposium exploring waste and excess in queer cultures”. On your website you have images connected to Jack Smith and John Waters. Who would you cite as influences in the realm of performance art?
I don’t really think of myself as a performance artist. I just use performance to create new ways of thinking about my scholarly work, and new ways of connecting different publics with that work.
I’m interested in thresholds: between performance and scholarship; between academic and non-academic; between the serious and the frivolous. I’ve been exploring those thresholds for the past few years with artists like Harold Offeh, Roy Claire Potter, Owen G Parry, and Tim Redfern. So, yeah, they’d be my biggest influences.
What’s next for you? I know you were recently on holiday and I’m sure that was a warranted break. Are you reading anything notable at the moment? I’m in Oregon and the wildfires of the western U.S. have tinted everything in a rusty-orange apocalyptic light. Things have been very disconcerting but it seems a very important time to write, publish and connect. Are you currently working on any projects?
Oh man I hope you’re ok. One of my students had to fly back to Oregon from Cambridge in March and it sounded so intense when I spoke to her. She was writing her dissertation about James Baldwin by day and protesting in the streets by night.
Right now I’m reading Samuel Delany’s immense queer epic, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. It first came out in 2012 but has just been republished. It’s wild, super transgressive, and perverse (he has a predilection for smegma our Chip Delany), but it’s also a radically utopian book.
My new project is about queer spaces and the artists, writers, and performers who moved through them. It looks at ten queer figures for whom space was really important. It comes out of WRONG in many ways, but it’s a bit more pop maybe? I’m writing it a lot quicker anyway! I’m thinking of it as a new queer history of the twentieth century attuned to sense of place.
I appreciate that! I’m doing well, all things considered, and wishing for wellness across the globe. Between the virus, the political climate and the wildfires it’s been a challenging world. That being said, it’s been very inspiring to witness people creating art and demonstrating simultaneously. ACTING in a way less predicated on consumerist scripts.
I’ve heard about Delany’s Through the Valley and it sounds fascinating. It is on the list! Your current project seems like a very natural progression from WRONG, as much of the biography has to do with ideas of queerness and space, with value placed on the body and in how historical archives are constructed. I’ll be very excited to keep my eye out for this in the future. With these concepts in mind: radical utopianism, new queer history, the idea of being multiple: an individual as well as a part of a larger community, species, consciousness etc, what is Utopia to you? Is there transgression in Utopia?
Wow, great question Evan. Utopia literally means ‘no place’. That’s its etymology and it makes sense to me: utopia for me names not a place like heaven or paradise or whatever but an orientation, a commitment. I’m a Buddhist so I think about it in those terms. In Buddhism one of the things we say when we bow is “Buddhism is unattainable, we promise to attain it”. It’s about the living commitment to a receding horizon in a way, the orientation towards it—that’s what’s important.
But even if utopia is “no place” we still need to get our bearings somehow, if only to know how to orient ourselves. Art and literature fulfil that function—as indeed do the stories and histories of what we think of as utopias; temporary autonomous zones—“a bit of land ruled only by freedom”.
So the question for me isn’t so much “is there transgression in utopia”, but “is there utopia in transgression?”
Diarmuid Hester is a radical cultural historian, writer, and performer based in Cambridge, England.
Evan Isoline is a writer and artist living on the Oregon coast. He is the founder/editor of SELFFUCK and his full-length debut is forthcoming from 11:11 Press. Find him @evan_isoline.
EVENT: DENNIS COOPER MUST DIE, a discussion on process, awkwardness, and triumph between Dennis Cooper, his biographer Diarmuid Hester, and Ira Silverberg, Cooper’s publicist, literary agent, editor, and publisher of over three decades. $20. Friday, September 25th, 3-4pm EST at The Shipman Agency, Brooklyn, NY.
PURCHASE TICKETS TO THE EVENT HERE.
PURCHASE WRONG HERE.
Header: Photograph courtesy of the author, diarmuidhester.com
Body: Cover of WRONG courtesy of University of Iowa Press.
Event: Image courtesy of The Shipman Agency.