Smoking With Cooper Renner
by Meg Pokrass
Cooper Renner is the translator of 'Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions' by Mario Bellatin and the author of 'Mosefolket' (poems, under the name Cooper Esteban). His website is at cooprenner.com.
What are you working on right now in your writing life? This week? Next week? Next month?
I may still be working on the short story collection Dr Fenech's Guide to Lycanthropy in Malta (1913). It has 8 stories right now, and I'd like it to have 10 at least. One of them, "On the Waves," has just been published in the Halloween Tales section of issue 2 of Grey Sparrow Journal.
Can you tell us about your books? We are seeing pieces (excerpts) in magazines, like NY Tyrant, Anemone Sidecar, Grey Sparrow, and Keyhole... and would love to know more. Would love to know as much as you can tell us!
Last year, the first time I tried National Novel Writing Month (dared more or less by my buddy Lou Ann), I wrote A Death by the Sea, set in Malta and dealing with lycanthropy. (Four pieces of it have been published, but I don't have a publisher for the novel yet.) At some point after I finished drafting A Death by the Sea, I got the idea for another story set in Malta, this time dealing with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his time spent there in the early 19th century. Disbelief is novella-length and is partly verse and partly prose. It pretends to be a scholarly reconstruction of two sets of previously unknown materials by Coleridge: one set is the pieces of a narrative poem set in Malta and dealing with lycanthropy; the other is based out of journal entries of Coleridge's life there, which in many ways reflect the incidents and settings of the poem. New York Tyrant and Anemone Sidecar have accepted material from Disbelief for publication next year—spring, I think? New York Tyrant will also run some of my pencil illustrations built out of the poem's elements. Next is another novella called Christabel: a Fiction, in which I pretend to finish Coleridge's poem and to write a set of 'scholarly' commentaries on the completion—with the caveat that it is impossible to ascertain from the poem itself whether Coleridge actually finished it (and then set it aside) or if instead the work is that of John William Polidori, who wrote "The Vampyre". A section of Christabel has just been published in Grey Sparrow, along with "On the Waves," and the Introduction will appear in the next issue of Sleeping Fish. Like the novel, though, neither of these works has book publication lined up yet. Next I worked up a shorter narrative poem, based out of Byron's "Fragment of a Novel," with a short faux-scholarly introduction. And then I began work on Dr Fenech.
I'm hoping to be inspired enough to do NaNoWriMo again in November and I think what I do will be a sequel or companion book, but I haven't entirely made up my mind. One way or another, if I can draft another this year, it will be set in Malta.
I'd like to ask about your artwork. I've been so taken with your way of capturing mood/moment/character in your drawings, and I was wondering what your process is with art, and how it compares or contrasts with the process of the written word.
That's a really good question, and a really hard one. I don't think about art the way I think about writing. I don't think about sense or even continuity a great deal of the time. It's all about the image, what is actually seen as opposed to what might be 'interpreted'. (I often write on my drawings and a recent one says, "It's all arcs and angles," or something like that.) I took art in high school, but I'm not a trained artist. I've gotten some great pointers and insights from friends and colleagues, especially the artist John Lindus, but I don't know enough about art history, though I've studied a bit about ancient art in college.
The drawings with multiple images in them, such as the "Lykos" drawings or the drawings about place, come from two different directions, I suppose. The 'place' drawings—Malta, Portugal, etc.—are really just pencil postcards, composites from photos I took. The "Lykos" drawings, which are also attached to Malta, have a fictional base, primarily the novella Disbelief, and incorporate lines of verse from the novella. But the way the images come together are almost free association, suggested by the lines of verse. Conventionally (and in these fictions of mine) a werewolf is either wolf or man, not some Minotaur-like merger, but for drawing purposes I created a merger, generally a man with a wolf's head, though in a couple there is the wolf's head or 'face' arising from the man's torso, which plays off the idea of the torso's suggestion of a face, which Magritte also worked with. I suppose these drawings came about simply because I like to draw every day if possible, and I needed subjects, and the Maltese lycanthropy I was creating was in my mind.
How much of all of this is subconscious or unconscious? I don't know. Clearly I like fragmentary images, drawings which are just part of a face or a body or an automobile! This might be related to my attraction to tiny lyrical forms—not haiku so much, but single stanza Chinese poetry, for example, or the fragments that have survived from ancient Greek poetry. Which might in itself be related to my interest in the ancient world, which survives in ruins. I love ruins, ruined buildings, broken statuary—and clearly a lot of people do. Why? I'm not sure. One can make all kinds of psychological arguments about the mystery of a past which is only partially known, but I think that may be going too far sometimes. If a pencil is really sometimes just a pencil, can't a preference for fragmentary forms be simply a preference for things that are jagged and then empty, which dare the mind to complete what is missing—the way we do with the moon, or the way we imagine forms in the clouds and water spots and the grain of sawn wood?
Part of what is going on may just be preservation, in an odd sense. The stereotype is that people seek immortality by having children, by carrying on the 'family line.' I haven't done that (though I suppose I'm not too old still to marry someone young enough to be my daughter!), so perhaps some of the drawings based on my own form are a kind of ploy for immortality, a preservation of versions of a form. And writing is supposed to be the same, isn't it? The ancient Greek idea of eternal glory or fame transferred from the battlefield to the arts. In a more practical sense, though, if an artist isn't making enough money to hire models, who else is more readily at hand than himself?
I'm not sure I actually answered your question!
Do you have/have you had mentors?
Well, I don't have an MFA, so I don't have the experience of being immersed with other writers for a year or two in an intense writing/teacher-student relationship. Early on, my mentors were simply a few of my English teachers, whether in high school or college, and I had a couple of buddies who were likewise interested in writing. A great deal of what I've learned has come simply from reading, I suppose. By the time I stumbled across The Quarterly, probably around the time of issue 5 or 6, I had been trying to write poetry for pretty nearly 20 years with spectacularly little publishing success. Gordon Lish took a quick interest in what I was doing and began accepting things soon, though I very often had to do rewrites, a prospect which probably almost terrified me early on—I seem to recall being really afraid that he would like my rewrites less than what I originally submitted and that I would lose what finally seemed to be a good break. We talked once or twice on the telephone, and he was kind enough to reassure me that he was really interested in what I was doing, but wanted it to be stronger. (Now, this is poetry we are talking about, not prose. My poetry is published under the name Cooper Esteban.) I initially had no idea who he was, except that he edited The Quarterly and responded really quickly. Over the next 7 or 8 years, until the magazine shut down, he had first chance on just about every poem I wrote, both because I knew I would have it back quickly if he didn't like it and because I knew I had an attentive ear there, which I hadn't found hardly anywhere else. (I stay in touch with him still, though I have little enough verse to show him anymore.) Around this same time, I had met and begun sharing my writing with Deron Bauman. Deron is actually the son of someone I had graduate courses with. He had in many ways a similar sensibility to Gordon's, a sensibility which was quite different from what I was used to. These two—one just about old enough to be my father, the other just about young enough to be my son—have probably had a greater impact and a more intellectually based impact on my writing than anyone else, though I might not have survived without the earlier encouragement. I also had lengthy correspondences with Donald Hall and Guy Davenport, though those contacts were more generally literary than specifically related to my writing.
What music do you love? I read something about how you love Arthur Lee — I was recently introduced to his music by a friend.
Arthur Lee probably isn't one of my key musical heroes. He's one of those cases of someone who achieved something very notable very early, and then seems to have lost his way, musically. I am not nuts about the first two Love albums, though I like "Seven & Seven Is" very much and am pretty fond of the side-long "Revelations," which everyone else seems to hate. But I agree with most rock critics that Forever Changes, the third love album, is absolutely one of the best rock albums ever released. I suppose I would rank it at least with the best of the Beatles and certainly higher than Pet Sounds. But I should probably warn you that my musical tastes are pretty off-the-wall. As a kid I loved, on the one hand, The Five Americans (who are mostly known today only for the single "Western Union") and, on the other hand, The Seeds—perhaps my all-time favorite band—most famous for "Pushin' Too Hard," though that's hardly the only great garage-punk song in their catalog and not at the top of my list. I loved Eric Burdon and the Animals' records, Basic Blues Magoos by the Blues Magoos, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. A lot of very fine music came out when I was in junior high and high school. The Zombies, Blind Faith, Disraeli Gears by Cream. Music I still enjoy 40 years later. But I think Never Mind the Bollocks is a first-rate album too, better than any single album by The Clash. I like a lot of stuff by Brian Eno, The Wedding Present, Micah P Hinson, Krishna Das, John Cale. Nowadays I've probably been a lot more likely to buy "ambient" or experimental recordings—Jacob Kirkegaard, Hildur Gudnadottir, Fennesz—than albums of songs in the normal sense. I think Eno's "Discreet Music", which I probably first bought in '79 or '80, is one of the most beautiful recordings imaginable. Maybe I should compile an imaginary sampler (songs only) for you: "Fallin'" by the Seeds; "She's Not There" by the Zombies; "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number" by the Beatles; "I Put a Spell on You" by Arthur Brown; "Deserted Cities of the Heart" by Cream; "Something in the Air" by Thunderclap Newman; "Ooh La La" by Faces; "EMI" by the Sex Pistols; "Straight to Hell" by The Clash; "Most of the Time" by Bob Dylan; "Wow" by Cinerama; "Beneath the Rose" by Micah P Hinson; "Samson and Delilah (Aria)" by Klaus Nomi; "Let X=X/It Tango" by Laurie Anderson; "Fried Hockey Boogie" by Canned Heat. Something like that.
What do you do when you are in a creative lull? Do you have any ideas for getting "unstuck"?
That's a really tough one. Sometimes the mind just needs to rest. Take a break; read; take long walks or a long drive. When the mind is just floating—like it can on a long walk—sometimes words or ideas or bits of phrases will snag your almost-unconscious interest and give you something to work with. Reading really interesting nonfiction might provide a setting or character or idea: Joseph Campbell or Jung or ancient history. I don't really try to force poems much. What may be the last poem I wrote came about rather artificially, but not exactly with real poetic intent in mind: I was walking and thinking about trying to explain to one of my aunts how a poem could come about or something like that. Right now I can't even remember exactly what I was trying to "prove". Fiction—at least something lengthy—is a different issue, as many writers have noted. More perspiration than inspiration. Loosely blocking out a plot, then trying to get from point to point. Letting the characters have their way. And certainly a writer feeling blocked can turn to the old stories—the myths and folktales—and look for new angles there. Or try translating.