'Fire' insight: talking with David Wojnarowicz biographer Cynthia Carr

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The following interview took place with Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury USA, 624 pp., $35), on an early fall afternoon at the old Odessa Restaurant on Avenue A in the Lower East Side, New York City — one of the few places left where you can still pretend you're in the LES of Wojnarowicz's day. Carr will be at the San Francisco Art Institute Wed/3 to discuss her book. Read Erick Lyle's review of the book here.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Your book is the first real biography of David Wojnarowicz. Up until now, the best book on him I thought was that Semiotext(e) book, David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side. Your book has a lot of that same feel, the layers and layers of neighborhood detail. But, of course, your book has the advantage of having all of David's thoughts and perspective on the same events because you have his journals and his correspondence. How were you able to access all of that material?

Cynthia Carr All of his papers are at Fales Library at NYU — all of his journals and the letters he kept. And I did get letters from quite a few other people, like his boyfriend in Paris, Jean-Pierre. At the beginning of the relationship, David wrote to JP at least every other day and later at least once a week.

When I went to Paris I took a scanner with me and back home I printed them out. The stack was like four inches thick! It was filled with information about what he was doing or working on every day. While the journals from those times are mostly about him going to the piers for sex, which he didn’t tell his boyfriend too much about! [Laughs.] The letters, though, are all about where he was living or where he was working, or ... really, most of the time, he was looking for work… I was very fortunate to get that.

SFBG How long have you been working on this?

CC Five years. I started in '07.

SFBG One of the things I think is really great about the book is how you break down the reporter objectivity and place yourself into the narrative. And I think it works because it's really a story in a way that only you could tell, because it has the rich detail that could only come from an observer who was really here in this place the whole time. What led you to take this on? What was your inspiration to tell the story of David or of the neighborhood through him?

CC Well, David’s last boyfriend, Tom Rauffenbart, actually mentioned to me that he would really like there to be a book about David and that he thought I should be the person to write it. I had written another book and when that came out in 2006, I wasn’t at the [Village] Voice anymore. I was freelancing, which is rough, as you know. And Tom had mentioned this to me, and I thought maybe I should give it a try, writing a book about David.

I wasn’t sure of all the details of David’s life, but I thought it seemed like a compelling life story. Over the years, too, people had questioned "the mythology," — I mean, people didn’t believe his childhood stories, so I thought maybe there was a mystery there I could figure out. It was a period of time when I had lived in the same neighborhood as David and this would give me a chance to write about the East Village arts scene, the AIDS crisis, and the culture wars of the 80s all in one book, because he was a central player in all of those things.

SFBG In the end of the book, David approaches you and starts to tell you things about his life before he dies. Do you feel like in some way he knew you were a reporter and he was choosing you to do this book?

CC That might be a little too mystical to get credence, but he did open up to me and reach out. He started calling me to come over a lot. He also chose Amy Scholder who will be on stage with me in San Francisco. She was an editor at City Lights and he got to know her and chose her to edit his journals.

SFBG Those last couple years of his life — even though we know how it ends, that part of the book is so full of suspense Because it was amazing to see someone be so driven to do everything they wanted to die before they died and to actually almost do it all! It was really amazing to see how much art he was able to make across so many different media in such a short time.

CC David had tremendous inner strength and very solid will power that got him through all of this stuff. For the last year or really eight or nine months of his life he actually wasn’t really able to work, but he always talked about it. He always wanted to. I describe him as workaholic who had trouble holding a job. He worked constantly.

There was a trip he went on with Tom and their friend, Anita, near the end of his life that I describe in the book. One day, they find David just lying contentedly in a hammock and Tom says, “Look! He’s not working!” Because David was always working. Like, if he was walking with you on the beach, he’d also the whole time be picking up twigs or shells or driftwood that he thought he could use in a piece. It was like that.

SFBG So obviously you were already pretty far along with this when the latest controversy with David's art happened at the "Hide/Seek" show at the Smithsonian. What were you thinking when that happened?

CC In a way, I liked that it happened because it drew attention to David and a lot of people didn't know who he was, so I thought it would be helpful for the book. But in another way, it was shocking that he would get back into the news in this absurd way, which was for about 11 seconds of a film that he didn't even finish that was completely misinterpreted by everybody. I mean, even the art world people who defended David by saying that the film was about AIDS didn't have it right.

SFBG It was such a weird déjà vu ... I first encountered Wojnarowicz as a teen during the era of that culture war controversy. There was his work, the Piss Christ, Karen Finley, Mapplethorpe, of course. That's when I first heard about a lot of cool art! But I couldn't believe it was happening all over again. Like, "Are we still HERE?" Not really, I guess, but they are. It's really incredible.

CC It shows that David still has the power to be a lightning rod.

SFBG Why do you think that is?

CC David was very blunt in both his imagery and his feelings about things. He didn't pull any punches. He used powerful symbols that are hard to explain as sound bites, so it's easy for the Right to pick them up and take them out of context.

SFBG Personally, I've always felt like David's writing is more timeless than his art. Some of the art is so linked to the time and place of the AIDS/culture war era that it sometimes seems dated to me, whereas the writing is this beautiful, timeless narrative of the outlaw in America, the outsider. But it was interesting that those artworks from that time and place are still so triggering, so perhaps they are timeless after all.

CC There are certain themes of his that really live on. His work is in major museums, of course.

SFBG You're doing this panel tomorrow at the Brooklyn Book Festival. What is it? "The Creative City"?

CC Yeah, I think it's about the 70s and 80s in NYC...

SFBG Here's the notice: "The Creative City: The 70's, 80's, AND BEYOND"! [Laughs] Beyond? That must be like a blank, white space on the map...

CC Right! [Laughs]

SFBG In the past couple years there has been so much nostalgia for the NYC of the 70s and 80s in books and films. It's coming from all sides. What do you think accounts for all of the interest in this lost time and place?

CC Well, the city has changed so much and the culture has changed so much. I think people look back to the freedom of that era when there was so much more uncolonized space, even in Manhattan, and it was cheaper to live here so people could just come here and try things. There was room to experiment. You didn't have to make a lot of money immediately. You could just, say, go to a vacant lot between Avenue B and C and put on a performance with a cast of 30 or 40 people and no one would bother you. I saw many things like that then but there's no way that could happen today. It's starting to feel like everything has a stricture on it.

Not everybody looks back with longing for those days, of course. And when I look back with longing, I try to remember how dangerous it was then, because it really was very dangerous here. There was more crime, more rats, more garbage...

SFBG The price of freedom!

CC [Laughs] Right! But it starts to look like this golden age of Bohemia because there's nothing like it now. Everyone's so spread out. Williamsburg is completely gentrified. There are artists living all over the city from Red Hook, Brooklyn, all the way up to the Bronx. Also, people are starting out in MFA programs and artists are going to graduate school, so it's a different way of coming up in the art world. David was so uneducated. I was thinking tomorrow on the panel I would read something about the piers. Not just the sex piers but the two art piers where David sometimes painted and took photos. There you had people making this art in this abandoned space with a total freedom and also working with the knowledge that it was not going to last, that it would be destroyed. David loved that part of it.

SFBG That's one of the most poignant things about the book. David really identified with this idea that the Empire was falling, that the civilization was in ruins. Like the painting he titled, Some Day All of This Will Be Picturesque Ruins. But then it turned out that it was really just his own civilization or community that would soon crumble and disappear. And now a generation later, the inhabitants of this new Lower East Side are walking around on top of this lost civilization that has disappeared without a trace and is buried just under their feet. Could anyone at that time have imagined that the neighborhood would turn into what we have here today?

CC Oh, I think not. It was clear from as early as 1990 that the neighborhood was undergoing changes. The galleries had to leave because the rents were going up. I lived between Avenue A and B and I heard about someone buying an apartment for $250,000 on my block! I couldn't believe it. But now you have luxury hotels up in the LES and every old parking lot has a high-priced condo on it. But when you're younger, I guess, you don't really think about what things will turn into.

SFBG Do you still live in the neighborhood?

CC Yes, I do. I can’t afford to move! I have a rent-stabilized apartment and have been there since the 70s. When I moved in there was only one bodega between Houston and 14th street on Avenue A – that and the Pyramid Club. Before that I lived between Avenues C and D, and people wouldn’t come over to visit me.

SFBG Where do you think your book fits into this flow of books full of nostalgia for that era, then? To me it's almost a corrective to the nostalgia, since it's not romantic at all. It shows the struggle and loss that happened from there to here.

CC I don't know that those other books really went into what happened in the AIDS crisis. The AIDS epidemic is a shadow that was behind the East Village arts scene the entire time right from the beginning and no one knew it. I found news stories about people coming down with Kaposi's Syndrome as early as the late 1970s. It was starting to spread then and no one knew it. And the people that died from AIDS were the biggest risk takers, the people who were most creative... the people who had the biggest impact on the arts scene. Losing all those people changed the world for the worse.

SFBG So, the building where David lived his last few years and where he died was his late best friend, Peter Hujar's loft. Am I right that Hujar's loft is now that multi- screen movie theater on Second Avenue at 12th?

CC Yeah.

SFBG Have you been to see movies there?

CC Oh yeah! It’s really weird! I haven’t seen a movie there in a few years, but I do think about, about David dying right upstairs. I’ve been told that the loft is now an office space. The first time I went to the theater part of the building was for Charles Ludlum’s memorial service. It was still being converted then from an old Yiddish theater into the cinema multiplex. It’s been a couple years, and I can’t remember what I saw there last, but, sure, I’ve gone to see films there.

SFBG Where was David’s room in the building? It’s such a strange layout for a theater.

CC Well, he was up on the Third floor. There are windows shaped like Old West tombstones that face 12th street and that was where his kitchen table was, where he sat and worked. Recently, I was thinking that out of all of us who were there taking care of David in those last months, none of us took a picture of the place. I wish now I could remember what all the piles of stuff were, because David was just such a pack rat. There were piles not just of art projects and supplies, but piles of paper, The NY Post — he liked using the tabloids in his collage pieces…

SFBG That Nan Goldin photo in the book is so great. What is he sitting with here? Like are those giant sperm?

CC Yeah, they are sperm — homemade props from his In the Shadow Of Forward Motion performance. And there is his baby elephant skeleton. And some movie posters he must have brought back from Mexico...

SFBG Well, let's talk about David and San Francisco. For such a noted queer artist and activist, he seems to have surprisingly limited connection with San Francisco. But he did make it to the city a couple of notable times, right?

CC One of his early goals in life was to go to City Lights Books and he actually took a bus all the way across the USA just to go there.

SFBG Well, he's not the only one. That's so great!

CC And when he took this early hitchhiking and rail-riding trip in 1976, he went to SF and stayed there at the YMCA in the Tenderloin for awhile. He liked San Francisco.

SFBG Did he also appear at the SF Arts Institute?

CC I believe he performed In the Shadow Of Forward Motion there. But he also did a reading for Close To The Knives in SF at the bookstore, A Different Light. That was the only reading he did for that book tour. His first idea was to drive across the country and do readings here and there, but he just wasn't feeling well enough. So he decided he would only do one reading and it would be in San Francisco. That same day, he joined in a march about AIDS awareness in SF.

SFBG What do you think is next for you?

CC It might be time for me to move my work out of the East Village. My first book was a collection of my Village Voice articles and now there's this book, so maybe I've told all of my story here. I got so exhausted with this. I really worked every single day except Christmas Day, working around the clock, and I got really depleted. So I'm recovering from all of that work.

SFBG Well, that work really paid off! This book is very special. Is there anything you want to add to this?

CC Well, one thing I've noticed is that reviewers tend not to talk about the love stories in the book. The importance of Peter Hujar and Jean Pierre to David. And Tom Rauffenbart. And maybe it's natural that people focus on the art and the AIDS crisis. But the love stories are to me really important.

SFBG I got that from the book. His life was so improvised. He never reached a place of safety or security where he had the luxury of saying, "OK, here's what I'm going to do next." It was like he was reacting all of the time to whatever came up. He had difficulty trusting in the future or in relationships with other people. I think all of that is common with people who have abuse histories and I think you got that across.

CC Yes, he always reacted to stuff. Like he found an obscene drawing on the street where someone had scrawled "Fuck you, faggot fucker!". So he used it in a painting and based a whole work around the drawing and called it Fuck You Faggot Fucker! He was always responding. The things that troubled him became the subject of his work. That is what inspired him.

David Wojnarowicz: Cynthia Carr and Amy Scholder in Conversation
Wed/3, 7:30pm, free
Lecture Hall
San Francisco Art Institute
800 Chestnut, SF
www.sfai.edu/event/CynthiaCarr

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