A couple of years back, during a long, dark winter of stifled thought, late into a decade of social disaster, a meeting took place between San Francisco’s City Lights Book’s editor Amy Scholder and New York literati, Ira Silverberg. They met to discuss an idea: the creation of a forum for free thinkers, libertines, dangerous expressionists; the candle-bearers of radical living. Next month, and several lifetimes later, New American Library will publish the result—High Risk; An Anthology of Forbidden Writings, edited by Scholder and Silverberg. The contents include visionary work by, among others: William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Mary Gaitskill, Essex Hemphill, Karen Finley, David Wojnarowicz, Lynne Tillman, Gary Indiana, Cookie Mueller, David Trinidad, Terence Sellers, Bob Flanagan; 25 textual transgressions in all that explore the inside and the ‘other side’ without regard for mainstream—gay or straight—sexual, social, or racial respectability. As a whole work, the book comes from more than one perspective. While memorializing the depths a generation writing now, who in the ’60s, redefined free love, discovered drugs, started the antiwar movement and fought for civil rights, it illuminates with equal directness a post ’80s marginalization and alienation. But its greatest value is as a documentation, exploration, and testimonial to the humorous, wild, wanton spirit at the core of being alive.
Eric Latzky You define High Risk as, “…all those activities, subjects, imaginings that challenge the limits imposed not only by society but by oneself.” The limits imposed by oneself?
Ira Silverberg We saw friends limiting their own content as a response to broader issues within society. The minute any constraints are placed on artists or writers it immediately renders them much more powerless—in terms of what their work can evoke from a viewer. To begin without limits, opens the opportunity for the writer to go the full spectrum, and ultimately that’s the purest work possible. The lack of limits has to do with purity more than it does with any kind of political agenda, albeit this project was inspired by a political backdrop. But it was started long before the censorship bru-ha-ha.
Amy Scholder Self-censorship is ultimately a much more powerful thing than any kind of censorship that comes from the outside. As far as fundamentalists or governments or other groups who are trying to stifle artistic expression are concerned, it’s certainly the preferred form of censorship: it’s cheap and silent and it works better than anything else. People we know have gone deep within themselves to deal with very serious themes or ideas, to reveal something—when that’s lost, it’s really frightening.
Dodge Lee had a secret life. It was the kind of unimaginable, unacceptable, and grisly secret life that would horrify most friends and casual acquaintances. In fact this secret life was something that horrified 99 percent of the population of the world.
For Dodge, who owned and lived the secret, it was something else. It wasn’t so peculiar or terrible. He was comfortable with the secret and he knew that one percent understood.
Dodge’s secret was his thirst. He was a golden showers guy, a man into water sports, a pee hag. During the day he was like everyone else, he ate eggs and toast and drank coffee for breakfast, and at dinnertime he drank mineral water or wine at the table, but late at night in damp pee bars he drank urine. On these nights his secret life came to full flower like a rare night-blooming jasmine under a swollen summer moon. It was wrong, he thought, to relish pee the way he did, but it was his secret which he proudly carried after midnight among the one percent who had seen a lot and hadn’t blushed in 15 years. There he was, sassy in the dark, the Dodger with a mug of gold.
—Cookie Mueller “The One Percent”
EL There’s the idea of challenging limits, which can be responsive or reactive, especially when the limits are imposed by others, and then there’s the idea of transgression, which is more of a proactive idea. How do either of these ideas relate to the work in the book?
IS Looking back in literature historically, these ideas have always been present—the Bible certainly challenged limits—although in a rather judgmental fashion. And then there’s writing that’s more purely transgressive, like the work of de Sade. Challenging limits was something that was imposed on us. We asked people to explore specific subject matter at a time when it was very unfashionable to write about these things. We didn’t ask people to make responsive work: we went to people who already were making this kind of work. What we’re doing is providing a context for that which is always present, but often invisible: the underbelly of desire. We didn’t go to someone like Joyce Carol Oates and say, “We’d really like you to write about fist fucking.” We went to people we considered simpatico to begin with.
do it to the way I tell you to or don’t do it all. spit in my face. dripping dripping the saliva dripping dripping all the way from your lowered eyes to the end of your rough chin spittle hangs like jungle vines. spit while your hand is clenched. spit the way I tell you to or don’t spit on me at all. on his eyes so he can’t see. he rubs the slimy saliva with his sticky hands. from his throat the spit that crashes down on my face. his fingers displacing space on my face. do it harder or don’t do it all. rigid hands like hard pumice redden the deserted surface of the face. the gummy spit on the black hairs of the mustache that convert the mouth and the saliva in his mouth mix together. he contracts his lips. I spit on the photographs glued to your eyes. I break your face from side to side on the pillow. do it the way I tell you to do it. harder, more. the back the ass the face squashed by the hands trampled by the master’s stinking feet. and I your slave. If the blinds had been open on that hot noon of the city the smells of carburetors and chimneys would have reached us, there would have been sunlight streaked by the rose-colored blinds and this would not have had any importance.
—Manuel Ramos Otero The Exemplary Life of the Slave & The Master
AS We went to people like Pat Califia, for instance, and said, you haven’t published any of your drug poems—I know you write about shooting up, where is this stuff? If you had a place to publish it what would you be writing now? Or what’ve you got in your files?
I am not so much fun
Couldn’t carry the role of ingenue
In a bucket, you say, laughing.
And I want to punch you.
I was never innocent, but
Thanks to you I know things
I wish I did not remember.
You don’t like it
When I talk to the man myself,
Specifying quantities and
Give him the money
Instead of giving it to you
And letting you take care of it.
You keep asking me,
Where’s the dope?
Until I finally say,
I hid it.
The look you give me is
Well, fuck you.
This isn’t like
Buying somebody a drink.
You don’t leave your stash out
Where I might find it.
Finally I think I’ve made you wait
So I get out the little paper envelope
And hand it to you.
You are still in charge of
This part, so you relax.
Performing your junky ritual with
Your favorite razor blade, until
I ask you how to calculate my dose
So I won’t O.D. when I do this
And you’re not around.
Then you really flip.
You tell me it’s a bad idea
For me to do this with other people.
* * *
Was it such a good idea
For me to do it with you?
Do you wait for me to turn up
Once every three months
So you can get high?
Is this our version of that famous
Lesbian fight about
Let me tell you what I don’t like.
I don’t like it when you
Take forever to cut up brown powder
And cook it down and
Suck it up into the needle
And measure it, then take
Three times as much for yourself
AS you give me.
I don’t like it when you
After you’ve taken the needle
Out of my arm.
You talk too much
And spoil my rush.
All I really want to do
Is listen to the tides of blood
Wash around inside my body
Telling me everything is
Fine, fine, fine.
And I certainly don’t want to
Eat you or fuck you
Because it will take forever
To make you come,
If you can come at all,
And by then the smack will have worn off
And there isn’t any more.
I’m trying to remember
What the part is that I do like.
I think this shit likes me
A lot more than I like it.
Now you’re hurt and angry because
I don’t want to see you again
And the truth is,
I would love to see you,
As long as I knew you were holding.
So you tell me
Is this what you want?
I bet it was what you wanted
—Pat Califia “We Really Should Stop This, You Know”
EL What influenced your perception that a need for this kind of forum existed now?
AS At the time that we started this project the big issue in literature was AIDS with regard to representations of unsafe sex. And then the big issue wasn’t just sex, it was taking drugs. And then it was talking about ethnic diversity or any kind of other community that was hard hit by AIDS—the communities that mainstream society in general seemed to feel perhaps were expendable, so, you know, why do I have to hear about their lives anyway? That was our starting point—AIDS was this black hole in the middle of the book. The book isn’t about AIDS, but AIDS was there in its creation, everywhere. Then after that, the book has come to be about this larger issue of what’s called censorship, which I feel is part of the general AIDS panic or sex panic anyway.
My mouth was always open, like a baby bird screeching its lungs out. My mouth: open wide for the doctors with no clue as to what’s wrong with me. My mouth full of bleach (an accident). My mouth full of medicine: “Take this. IT’ll make you feel better.” My mouth full of phlegm, constantly. My mouth, with the body of Jesus melting over my tongue. My mouth pressed against Sheree’s cunt as she crouches over me, letting loose with all her piss, which I obediently swallow, not spilling a single drop. Some guy’s penis in my mouth because Sheree wants to see me suck him off, but he’s not hard and I’m not hard, and it’s all so unfulfilling. My mouth, screaming at Sheree because she’s always so depressed, oblivious to what she has—which is me—and I still have enough ego to know, in spite of my submissive and masochistic nature, that I’m a pretty good catch: I cook; I clean; I do the laundry; I run errands; I build shelves; I solve problems; I’m passionate; I’m artistic; I’m creative; I’m sexy; I’m obedient; I’m loyal; I’m funny; I’m witty; I’m smart; I sing songs; I write poems; I fuck; I make her come; I make her smile; I make her laugh—but I can’t, I never have, and I never will make her happy.
—Bob Flanagan “Body”
EL Is the act of transgressing as significant as what actually lies beyond, what exists on the other side?
AS This book is a sample. I mean, we thought, why do an anthology? Because so much is buried, there are so few single volumes that deal with anything that really challenges—which is the place of an in-depth exploration—that to an extent, here, the act itself is what’s important. But of course it’s not the only thing. The form as well as the content—and I don’t think those two things can be separated—explores the issues of how we subvert telling a story, and what does verse really mean, and what does poetry really mean. A lot of discoveries can be made within the idea of storytelling by just subverting that whole idea of what has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
IS This came up in the publishing process. Our publisher asked us to label each piece in the book—performance, poetry, essay, fiction. Our attitude was, forget it. We’re not limiting this work to some category that you suppose it should be in. That’s part of what High Risk is about—defying categorization. This book was about saying, stop isolating people and isolating groups. There are ties that bond all of us. It’s not valid anymore, we’ve grown beyond that in literature. The writers we’ve included in this book have so little to do with category and so much to do with just their work.
AS The fact that this book is not all one thing is what’s interesting—that this is not a lesbian and gay anthology, and that this is not a heterosexual anthology, it’s not all white, it’s not all fiction. What became the constant was the fact that each work challenges something, is radical, either from within or without. That’s what we’re looking for, but that’s very loose and so it does make sitting down and reading this anthology a little difficult perhaps. We’re trying to broaden the base because we’re not so interested in whether we’re homo or heterosexual but rather what’s radical and what isn’t. The point is to suggest a new idea of community. It’s so much more challenging intellectually.
EL What is the concept of otherness about?
IS Displacement is probably a good modifier for otherness. I think there are so many diverse communities in America that live with the feeling of otherness because essentially they’re displaced. It’s one of the first concepts introduced in the preface to the book–that white supremacy is the thing that subverts aesthetic growth. Otherness becomes a catch-all phrase for us to describe living outside the mainstream—the mainstream being very limited to everything that the Reagan-Bush era has personified as being right.
AS We feel like we’re small and marginalized and we think of the center as being huge. But we in fact make up American society. It’s a very small proportion of individuals and institutions that make up the voice of the mainstream.
EL These new bonds that High Risk suggests—are they real?
AS They’re real in this book, and I think the point in putting this book together was that literature matters, culture matters. We may not be one big happy family—25 contributors and two editors—but here is a body of work that can function in dialogue with each other. In that way, this bonding exists, and that’s fine.
IS If High Risk is anything—I hope five years from now we can say it was a model for other people working in the arts to aspire to greater goals in terms of creating settings which are comfortable for a variety of different people to work in without any competitiveness. If High Risk can do that, it succeeded.
“evahbody wanna do da horizontal bop”
What would i say in them?
that i keep making typos at work becuz i can’t stop
thinkin about you
that i’m coming down with a cold becuz
i’ve spent too much time sleepin in the buff
after we’ve made love
that i’m broke out in a rash because all this sudden
attention from you racks my nerves
what do i say/
i don’t write many of em
that word has been terribly abused
i don’t want to contribute
plus i’ve been in love so many times with terrible results
i’m beginning to question my judgement
what kind of monster are you!
“beware—anything cums between open legs”
a friend once said
i’m on society’s bottom
all things shift down here sooner or later
i know the expertise with which Amerikkka destroys my
black male & female alike, to seek a mate
outside my people-culture, one of the alternatives to
abstention & loneliness
intimacy with pets opium
or staying wed to my
and you. all over me. so fast so total
have you lost your mind? do you know what price will be
extrakkkted from you for taking on a black woman
& her three children???
plus you’re unemployed
and i don’t want the world in my biz-in-ness
lessin’ i allow it in
i don’t want to beyourpoem stuff
cuz you’s a poet too
love between us seems impossible
but here it is
the black princess has a love jones
for a jewish frog with arts
and don’t care
worse come worse
he’s some kind of monster in disguise
may eat her up as a midnight snack
she contracts warts, becomes covered with them &
all her kisses
can’t transform him into a prince
even if it fails and months from now
she’s penning pain messages & making juju
to ward off this possession
of me by you
—Wanda Coleman “why i don’t write love poems for you”