Interviews

December 16, 2012      

An Interview With Cooper Renner by Nicolle Elizabeth and Kevin O’Cuinn

elimae editors Cooper Renner and Brandon Hobson announced the November/December 2012 Issue of the popular online literary magazine would be its last.

The magazine, founded in 1996, has been a standard-bearer of fine literature in the digital age. The quality of the work published in elimae demonstrated that literary excellence is not limited to the print realm. All online literary magazines that followed elimae owe a debt of gratitude to Cooper, Brandon and founder Deron Baumann for leading the way.

Word Riot Poetry Editor Nicolle Elizabeth and Fiction Editor Kevin O’Cuinn chatted with Cooper about his experience with elimae and his own work. We at Word Riot thank him, Brandon and Deron for their dedication. –Jackie Corley

Nicolle Elizabeth: Can you talk about what editing a journal, an online journal over so many years has been like? Meant to you?

Cooper Renner: Any work is, I reckon, both rewarding and annoying. But the rewards outweigh the annoyances or people give it up, right? I wasn’t quite ready to give elimae up, so I guess I was still enjoying myself. The real delight of course is that one never knows what is going to arrive in one’s email inbox. In most cases, to be sure, the writing won’t “fit” for whatever reason–not a good match to the magazine’s aesthetic, generally. But in a minority of cases, a marvelously important minority, the editor gets to open the email and find something that really zings him (or her, of course, but I’m just using the pronoun for my gender.) Something he couldn’t have predicted ahead of time. Writing that does something, goes somewhere he hadn’t thought of. Couldn’t have asked for. And yet it “fits”–it does whatever it is that the magazine likes to encourage. This was especially true in my case because a great deal of my “personal” reading originates decades in the past and/or maybe from another language (Joseph Roth, Anthony Trollope, Yoel Hoffmann) and frequently I really don’t know, until the writing enters my inbox, who the writer is. I’m not very good at surfing the web; I don’t generally read magazines as opposed to books. As far as I’m concerned, the work in elimae isn’t simply “fine work for a non-paying, experimental, Internet-only magazine”: it’s fine work, period. I think the poems in elimae beat the pants off the poems in Poetry or Paris Review or The New Yorker. I’d rather read the poems in elimae than the collections published by Knopf and Norton. When I scan new books of poetry at the bookstore I rarely see anything I like as well as what I’ve seen in the elimae inbox. Writers have sent me good work! (And I speak here specifically of poetry simply because I haven’t been editing the fiction for elimae since 2009.)

Nicolle Elizabeth: How has the online literary landscape changed over all of these years as you see it?

Cooper Renner: I really can’t say much about this, for the reasons mentioned above. I don’t know a great deal about the landscape at large. Most of my contact with other writers comes via elimae submissions and Facebook. I suppose that’s a terrible thing to admit, but it’s just the way my head works. And maybe it’s been a good thing–maybe being almost completely ignorant has made my editing just odd enough to be of use. I do know, to be sure, that there is a multitude of new magazines on the scene, as well as literary blogs, and many of them have made striking impressions. But surely I’m simply too old to approach what is out there in the same way as others.

Nicolle Elizabeth: What wisdom can you offer us, fellow writers, editors, publishers, readers?

Cooper Renner: First of all, let me say how kind you are to posit that I might have any wisdom! One central issue, I suppose, is that we all have to realize–especially as many of us occupy more than one of these roles–how different the roles are. What I read by choice and what I have published in elimae most often vary mightily. In the former case, I’m essentially a reader; in the latter, an editor/publisher cognizant of elimae’s stance and history before I became an editor there. This certainly doesn’t mean that everything I have done at elimae, everything I have selected for publication, would have been published when Deron Bauman was the editor–our “eyes” differ. But I like to think that what I have done has been more of an expansion, than a negation, of the parameters, or even the “taste” exhibited in elimae’s initial years. You and other writers and readers would be better equipped to judge my failure or success under such terms. I wanted to publish things whose sense of language attracted me: language usage rather than content. The how and not the why of a story or poem.

Kevin O’Cuinn:: Congratulations on your most recent novel, Disbelief, from Ravenna Press. I really liked it–the mystery, the metamorphosis, the whole question of authorship, plus the fact that it concerns one “discovered” document on the subject of another (discovered document). It felt like my head was in a maze, and I was in no mood to look for the exit. Plus, there is poetry and prose, and fine drawings. Question(s): Can you say a little about the role of Place in your work? What effect do you think Place has on seeing, in relation to creativity? What’s with Malta? What happens to the Maltese Cooper on returning to USA?

Cooper Renner: Thanks very much for your comments. It’s great to hear that you enjoyed the book, jumped into the craziness of it, and had fun. I love storytelling. Tolstoy, Joseph Roth, Penelope Fitzgerald–that’s literature. I’m a storyteller. With Disbelief, place is absolutely essential, and it’s a Malta that’s both real and not. The contemporary Malta is right there, of course, visitable and knowable. Its role in Disbelief is fairly slight, though, as the American Cooper doesn’t talk much about his present there: it’s Coleridge’s Malta that he’s interested in. That one’s fairly nebulous too, in a lot of ways, based out of the historic buildings I saw on my first trip there and sort of extrapolating back to the past. I read a book about Coleridge’s trip to Malta and his time there, though the name of it escapes me at the moment, and I’m not sure if I read it before or after writing Disbelief. Mostly I just needed to create a feel for life 200 years ago, since the events of the book are imaginary: not any kind of historical fiction in any sense. Extrapolating a sort of generic 200 year old feel onto a place I know in the present. The connection between place and creativity is probably harder to figure out, for me anyway. Maybe it works itself out in the unconscious. In terms of chronology, Disbelief follows my first Malta novel, A Death by the Sea, so the lycanthropy element was already pretty strong in my mind. Death took place in Malta for a purely personal reason–I had visited Malta the year before I wrote the novel and wanted to make use of it in fiction. Malta had, I suppose, wormed its way into my psyche. It wasn’t just a place I had visited anymore; it was under my skin. A group of lycanthropes–werewolves–who weren’t monsters, but just another form of life, had already been in my mind for a couple of years. So I brought them together. The novel came about because an old friend who has been doing NaNoWriMo for a number of years sort of challenged me to do it. A few months later, I started thinking about Disbelief and started writing pieces of the poem, with the idea that it would be fragmentary and Coleridgean. Your question about the American Cooper returning to the US is a bit more difficult. Initially, at least, he can’t return to the US. He’s officially dead and he’s under a kind of probation with the council of the werewolves. I’m not sure he ever gets to return.

Kevin O’Cuinn:: In Disbelief, you channel Coleridge to the point where I really thought it was him on the page. How did you manage to get in so deep? And why Coleridge?

Cooper Renner: If you began to feel, while reading, that Coleridge was on the pages, then I’m very flattered indeed. It means you had given me your willing suspension of disbelief, and that means everything to me. Coleridge was, at his best, a very very fine poet, and if I was able even to suggest his voice, as pastiche, then I’m immensely gratified. Why Coleridge? is easy: because Coleridge spent time in Malta. He was for a few months the secretary to the early British governor of the island, Alexander Ball. But the island seems to have had no impact on his poetry, though I can’t speak for the prose, of which I’ve read virtually nothing. In imagining the prosy Coleridge, I just tried to create a slightly old-fashioned and highly intelligent voice, working off the little I knew about his time there and his sometimes outrageous ideas. Coleridge is, far more than Poe, the poet laureate of the supernatural and the inexplicable, so why not have him write about lycanthropy? Why not imagine him as a lycanthrope?

Kevin O’Cuinn:: Having finished the book, how difficult was it to move on to something new (as in leaving STC behind)?

Cooper Renner: I guess it wasn’t difficult, at least not in the ordinary senses, because I didn’t leave him behind. I can’t remember what the time lag was, but fairly soon after finishing up Disbelief, I started work on another Coleridge pastiche, the completion of “Christabel,” his unfinished masterwork. It’s an idea that had occurred to me as far back as my undergraduate years–though I can’t specifically remember if I thought at that time that I ought to finish the poem, just that somebody should. I remember saying something about it one time to a professor who was a mentor of mine, and she was shocked that I would even think such a thing. Like Disbelief, Christabel: a Fiction is part prose, part verse, but it works in a different way, with a simpler structure: following a “scholarly” introduction, I present cantos 3-5 of the poem (my completion, that is) and then the notes to the poem, which comment upon and explicate aspects of its story and its presumed reflection of Coleridge’s life and psychology. The introduction was published a couple of years ago in Sleeping Fish, and a section of the poem, with notes, was published by Grey Sparrow online. As a whole, though it remains unpublished.

Kevin O’Cuinn:: The demise of elimae is one of the saddest things to happen to the Internet. Is it too soon to ask What’s next for Cooper Renner?

Cooper Renner: I’m so pleased that readers and writers enjoyed elimae. A magazine without readers is possibly even sadder than a book that doesn’t find its audience, since it is presumably less likely to find that audience “in another time.” As for what’s next, in any kind of magazine-y way, I simply don’t know. Brandon Hobson, my co-editor, and I are letting the question ride for the moment. Taking a break before deciding if we want to start something new. The archives that I’m responsible for, years 2005-2012, are housed now at my website because, as far as I know, the elimae.com URL will vanish by mid-March.

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