Bernard Cooper by Benjamin Weissman

BOMB 45 Fall 1993
045 Fall 1993
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Bernard Cooper. Photo by Jerry Brown.

Most of the well known writers in Los Angeles are garbage. Humongous pompous bores, their sentences read like cheesy worm oil, oh yes, with a dash of the Santa Ana winds. The interesting writers are shy secrets with cult status, famous among friends. Bernard Cooper is one of these ultra-talented great ones. Incredibly humble, smart, with an enormous penis, I mean sense of humor. Talking to him about anything is a blast. His timing is vintage Catskills.

His first book, Maps to Anywhere, an incredible book of prose poems, personal essays, and stories won the Pen/Hemingway Award for best first book of fiction. The pressure Cooper applies to his language is exquisite; it’s piano-string tight, the pacing brisk, images lush and exact. The right word jumps off his pages so often and gracefully that you kind of read with your mouth open. His writing has a way of making you freak out with glee about American English. It’s erudite and gentle, then he squirts you with a trick daisy. His second book and first novel is the recently published and amazing, A Year of Rhymes.

Benjamin Weissman Mr. Excitement here would like to ask the world’s weirdest question, when and how did you first know you wanted to become a writer?

Bernard Cooper I studied visual arts at the California Institute of the Arts. I was in the post-studio program and for years had been making conceptual art that involved the use of found images from magazines accompanied by some sort of text, though my use of text was not at all poetic or fictive; it was always very formal, like arranging words alphabetically or according to some predetermined system. But I’d always been an avid reader of poetry. Gradually the visual component of the work became less interesting to me and the verbal component more interesting. I headed further and further into the direction of using language exclusively. While this was happening, I was simultaneously rejecting the kind of dry, methodical approach to art-making that characterized so much conceptual art in the 1970s, and going back over books of poetry that I’d kept from high school. I was reading poets like Donald Hall and W.S. Merwin, and finding it much more gratifying than visual art. By the time I’d graduated from CalArts with a degree in visual arts, I’d decided I wanted to write. After graduating, I started to read everything I could get my hands on and … it was a wild time of floundering, experimenting with language, trying to write a scene or part of a poem. At that point, just bringing something to completion was a miracle. It was the beginning of a long period of apprenticeship.

BW Okay, two questions. Was it a shock to be an artist, to be surrounded by artists, to have immersed yourself in it, and then say, forget it. Is there something about CalArts or about artmaking or the art world that repelled you?

BC There are, I think, a variation of answers. One is that the more analytical approach to conceptual art suggested that you get an idea, that you know a priori what the outcome of the idea is going to be, and you do it. There was no element of surprise, of intuition; the process was all formula. I felt that the conceptual art I was making never exceeded my expectation, never took off in directions I hadn’t foreseen.

BW Did you ever try to make work and not know where you were headed?

BC Toward the end of graduate school, the work I was making was much more intuitive than my earlier work, much more embarrassing, too, because it took emotional risks and stood out in contrast to what many conceptual artists were doing then. Once I immersed myself in literature, it seemed so much more vast and complex, more emotionally resonant.

BW What happened with poetry? Why haven’t you published a book of your poems?

BC When I first started writing the pieces that would comprise Maps to Anywhere, I thought of many of the shorter ones as prose poems. My initial efforts in writing took the form of poetry, and for years I tried to write in verse. But I became so concerned about where to break the lines or how to arrange the stanzas, that the work became constricted, not the unpredictable, expansive work I wanted to do. Around that time, one book was especially influential for me, The International Anthology of the Prose Poem, by Michael Benedikt, who was then the editor of the Paris Review. To see that form employed by American writers like Anne Sexton or David Ignatow really opened up doors for me. So initially I felt I was writing poetry: prose poetry.

I used to get letters back from the editors of journals saying: We like this but we consider it a mini essay or a short-short story. There was contention about what the stuff was. But I figured I could either worry endlessly about what category my work fit into or just write it, make it as vital as I can, and then let someone else worry about the designation.

BW The ultimate boundary smasher. It’s wild, with the world of conservative editors and publishers, how the book found its way into the world.

BC It’s odd about how Maps to Anywhere has gotten a reputation for being a “genre buster.” I didn’t set out to willfully defy categorization. I wrote each piece as best I could and kind of crossed my fingers and hoped the pieces worked individually and in concert. But I didn’t try to do something avant-garde. And you’re right—I’m really lucky as far as publishing, because it’s an eccentric collection and at first met with some baffled responses. There’s a great expression in Yiddish for not knowing how to react to something unusual: “I didn’t know what to eat it with.” Initially, many people read Maps and didn’t know what to eat it with. But once it was ritualized in print, most people seemed to respond favorably to the book’s anomalous nature. Harper’s printed several pieces, one appeared in the New York Times, and one piece was chosen by Annie Dillard for the Best American Essays of 1988.

BW Okay. (laughter) That’s good.

BC Wow. Was it? Because I don’t know what I’m saying.

BW This is really dorky, but it’s something that I think about, when you said, “Oy!” and then gave me a Yiddish expression … the whole Jewish thing. (uproarious laughter)

BC Is the readership of BOMB mostly Jewish?

BW Yes. Orthodox. BOMB is only printed in Hebrew. A couple of things come to mind, the tradition of writing about being Jewish, and coming of age. I have an endless appetite for coming of age books. Critics often knock writers for it: “Glad they’ve gotten that out of their system.” And I think, why? Keep it in your system. And do it over and over again.

BC As far as the coming of age aspect, one of the most interesting reactions I’ve gotten so far about A Year of Rhymes was when it was in the formative stages. I sent the first half to Richard Howard, who has been an enthusiastic supporter. His summation of the book was incisive and illuminating to me because it brought to consciousness something I’d been only marginally aware of. He said, “This isn’t really a coming of age novel. This is a book about what it means to be in a body.” It was invaluable for me to hear that notion articulated because he was right on target, and I was able to bring to the surface of the book a sense of the physical, of the physiological, of what it means to have to contend with the lusts and failures of the body.

When I think of coming of age stories, I think of characters resolving certain issues or learning “Big Lessons.” I don’t think my novel is about resolving unresolved issues. A Year of Rhymesexplores that period of time when you start to become aware of your erotic impulses and also your mortality, and you make the transition from a child’s sense of eternity to an adult’s sense of the temporal nature of things. I was determined that the narrator’s sexual impulses not be acted on; I wanted them to be impending throughout the story, but not actualized. There’s something provocative to me about that period of life when your sexual impulses are surfacing, but you’re not informed enough or brave enough or self-aware enough to act on them.

As far as the Jewishness in the novel, I wanted to incorporate ethnic elements from my own childhood, and certain aspects of my having grown up in a Jewish household suggested themes that were in keeping with the broader focus of the book. For example, one thing that seems endemic to Jewish households is that people tend to complain freely about certain physical problems—mother talks about her sister’s diabetes while an uncle moans about his gas. Part of the Jewish sensibility seems to me to be a preoccupation with the frailties of the body. And so much Jewish humor deals with physical and emotional suffering—a way of leavening pain. There are some Jewish writers who aim for large, over-arching statements about being Jewish in American culture. I was more intrigued with the way Jewishness fit into other themes in the book, like one’s relationship with their body, or coping with suffering and loss.

BW The oddities of what a family does are so over the top.

BC When I think about my own family, I’m forever perplexed about who those people were—unraveling my complex relationship with them. I’m haunted by pungent images of being in a household of giants. Weird Jewish giants. I find my memories and associations with those people so compelling that I felt obliged to use it as the material for a novel. Not for the purpose of making broad statements about family in general or Jewish family in particular. But memory is something that incites me to write, and so many strong images still reside in that remembered household.

BW The sexuality in the book is very direct. Nothing is hidden, nothing is closeted, but then again, it’s totally not a man-on-man fuck meat novel, and if anyone expected that, they would obviously be reading the wrong book. I was wondering, the current political climate tends towards various degrees of severity, there’s a pressure to address issues …

BC In regard to it being a novel in which sex isn’t overt, the narrator is 11-years-old, and although some kids are having sex at 11, many are not. One of the things that fascinates me about that period of time when your sexuality is imminent but not realized, is that your sexual feeling gets … in a way you become polymorphously perverse in the sense that the way people move becomes suggestive, the way people eat becomes suggestive. The book is written from the point of view of someone for whom everything is infused for the first time with longing or eroticism.

As far as how the book falls into the category of queer literature in general … there’s such an enormous range of writing by gays and lesbians, and I’m not so concerned about how my novel fits into the scheme of things. I ask myself political questions when I’m working on something, I get caught up in the social and philosophical repercussions of what I’m doing, but I always end up doing exactly what I want to do, even if I think it won’t match the political climate. As a citizen, I have an urgent sense of social imperatives, what needs to be done in order to insure civil rights, to put a stop to AIDS; and I figure anything I write, directly political or not, is going to reflect those sentiments. I certainly didn’t set out to write a book that would change people’s minds about homosexuality, or strike any blows for the movement, though of course I hope my book deepens a reader’s sense of human possibility through this particular gay narrator. I hope A Year of Rhymes adds to gay literature like any book—it’s one more element, one more perspective in the ongoing formation of a body of gay and lesbian literature.

BW I’m amazed by the way you work: toiling over each sentence to get it perfect before moving on to the next sentence. You write like nobody else.

BC You mean one sentence at a time?

BW Yeah, until it’s right, and then you start the next one.

BC Some of that is a holdover from poetry, you know, the struggle to make sure every word is right. Evan S. Connell said he knew he was finished with a manuscript when he went through it and took out A’s and THE’s and then went through it again and put them back in. “Words are all we have,” he said, “and they’d better be the right ones.” I can’t conceive of another way of thinking about writing. Every word counts. Every word matters. I don’t want to redefine or re-work to the point where I’m stifled, but I tend to be pretty meticulous about getting the sentences as accurate as I can before I move on to the next paragraph.

BW I was thinking that if I wrote the way you do, I’d go insane. I know I wouldn’t write more than one sentence a year. Hopefully, it’d be a 200 page sentence.

BC One sentence is a good day for me. Just joking.

BW Your sentences are so full and meticulous. It’s interesting that you don’t lose any inspirational possibilities, that it’s not confining.

BC Both things happen. There are times I get mired in a couple of sentences, preoccupied with the nuances of structure or meaning to the point of absurdity. And then there are other days where I’m content with a few messy pages, and go back over them later. Annie Dillard said that one of the reasons she pays close attention to every word is that sometimes a single word choice can suggest a direction for the entire narrative.

BW Who do you wish you could write like?

BC Oh, anybody but me. (laughter) There are so many writers whose work I envy, either because they’re able to do things in prose I never could or because I worry they do what I do, but better.

BW Who is someone who does things like you, but better?

BC I love Tobias Wolff’s lucid prose in This Boy’s Life. And Marilynne Robinson’s calm stately sentences in Housekeeping. I’m crazy about Lolita.

BW Okay, so tell me what writing you hate.

BC Language poetry is one of my least favorite forms of literature. Part of my revulsion for it has to do with having gone to CalArts and becoming fed up with the idea of experimentation for its own sake. I find in most formalist art a kind of snobbish resistance to communication, an irrational fear of sentiment and emotion. I like when a writer brings news of the world. I’m not interested in words as purely abstract entities.

BW Was there a model for how you wanted to write your book?

BC One model for A Year of Rhymes was In Youth is Pleasure, by Denton Welch. I’ll never forget its images, like when the protagonist of the novel, a teenage boy, tries to see if he can fit himself in a dresser drawer. The novel was very much about nascent homosexual longing. There’s no overt sex, but covert sexual expectation runs under the prose like a flame. An astonishing novel in which almost nothing happens. It’s so willfully uneventful.

BW You have an incredible comic sense. You’re practically a comic writer, but you can’t say that because you have so much more going for you. It’s funny how humor is thought of as sort of low class or something. The jester.

BC I recently read a section out of the novel on two consecutive nights, a section that I think is both funny and grave. One audience reacted with a palpable sadness. The next night I read the same section and had to pause to let the laughter die down. Sorrow and humor work in tandem pretty much throughout the book, and one aspect or another will strike a person depending on their sympathies.

I don’t know where the humor comes from. Maybe the only thing I can say about my use of humor is that, since a lot of my work deals with mortality, a sense of loss that is sometimes suffocating, one of the only ways for me to maintain my sanity and to keep the narrative balanced is through humor. There are goofy things that happen in an otherwise sad scene, that just erupt when I’m writing, I suppose as a way of coping with grief.

BW I’m sorry. All the characters are a riot, Dad, Marion … it’s the warmhearted comedian all-star team.

BC The father does funny things in the novel in a misguided effort to maintain control in the face of impending loss—the death of his son from leukemia. And Marion, the older brother’s girlfriend, who is an artist, is a kind of grace note in the book; her eccentricity softens the edges of the story.

BW Your work is so emotionally moving. You handle it so well. Consistently no missteps. But because you’re working in that territory, I wonder if you ever worry about sentimentality.

BC Yeah. Well, I do make blunders.

BW No, you do not.

BC I really depend on a few people to whom I show my work in progress and hopefully the missteps have been edited out.

I like to be moved by what I’ve read, and I hope in turn to stir emotions with my work. I try not to do it through the sentimental or nostalgic. I’m fairly sure my work isn’t either of those things. But I’m fascinated with memory and the astonishments of childhood.

BW Oh, here’s a weird one: what are your literary ambitions?

BC To wear a monocle. (laughter) And a boa. (laughter) I would really like to get through another book intact.

Benjamin Weissman is the author of Dear Dead Person, a story collection due out next year from the Serpent’s Tail/High Risk.

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Originally published in

BOMB 45, Fall 1993

Featuring interviews with Gus Van Sant, Trisha Brown, Bernard Cooper, Francine Prose by Deborah Eisenberg, Mike Bidlo, Rob Weiss, Han Ong, Chen Kaige, Lawrence Chua, and Garry Lang.

Read the issue
045 Fall 1993