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Cynthia Carr: Searching for David Wojnarowicz

Cynthia Carr: Searching for David Wojnarowicz

Author: Nels P. Highberg

December 8, 2012

“He always felt like he was an alien and that people wouldn’t accept him as he was. He created camouflage.”

In my review of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury USA) by Cynthia Carr published here on Lambda Literary in September, I called the biography “one of the most important books of 2012,”  which is why I was so excited to meet Carr in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village and learn more about how she sifted through the mountains of letters, journals, audiotapes, and other materials housed in the Fales Library at New York University, especially considering Wojnarowicz’s own ability to obscure details of his life—particularly a troubled childhood with an abusive father and negligent mother, which led to Wojnarowicz’s living on the streets of New York City, hustling to survive.  Carr and I hurried into a coffeehouse near the park as a storm approached and discussed the public and private Wojnarowicz along with the challenges of creating a cohesive history that blends the two.

It was about a year ago when I heard you were doing the biography.  I’ve been to the Wojnarowicz papers at New York University, and there is so much there.  I’ve worked with a few of the documents, but I couldn’t imagine working through it all.  In Fire in the Belly, you talk about the Wojnarowicz mythos from the very beginning. What was the challenge of dealing with that?

The hardest thing to figure out was his teenage years after I lost his brother and sister as eyewitnesses.  I did not have too much to go on. I knew when he was hustling that there was one man he had grown very close to.  That guy had died in 2001. That was hard.  I relied on things Wojnarowicz had written, though I realized that there were several accounts. Even though I knew they were somewhat fictionalized, similar things kept coming up, the same stories. They were things he had told me, too, when I had talked to him. I decided that must be true in a general way, but I couldn’t go into a lot of detail. But I feel like I got something there that is an accurate representation of what he went through at that time. I think you’ll notice in that part I don’t have a lot of dates about when things happened.

As a reader, it was easy to tell when you were completely sure and when you weren’t sure. Was it difficult to write that way?

Not really. And I felt like if there was uncertainty, if it was tipping towards “I really don’t know,” I just left it out. My hope in the book was to try to break through the mythology and say what really happened. One of the big discoveries was his poetry career, which he kept hidden. If you’ve seen his biographical timeline in the catalogue for Tongues of Flame [the retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work held at Illinois State University in 1990], you know that there’s nothing in there about editing a literary magazine. He started as a poet, and then he erased that. But I had evidence of all that, so that wasn’t hard to deal with, and I had found the people who had been his friends at that point in his life.

You know, one thing that I wanted to do in this book—and I think I accomplished it—is to show how he became an artist, sort of tracing how he learned it. He didn’t go to school for it. Maybe you saw in the archives, too, some of his early drawings. When he was in his teens or twenties, and they’re like little cartoony kind of ink drawings. Then when he was in Paris, he started drawing. He made those things that are in the journals, the Rimbaud masturbation drawings. I think he didn’t trust his ability to draw. So all of his early work is based in his literary heritage. I mean, they’re writers he likes, Rimbaud in New York and then Untitled Genets. The first two pieces that become part of his body of work are the photos of people posing as Rimbaud and then the collage about Genet, the two writers he loved.

How did the biography itself get started?

It was my idea. I mean, I knew David and was thinking about David. I knew that all these papers existed. Actually, his boyfriend [Tom Rauffenbart] had been on me for years to write a biography and said, “You should do it.” Then I thought, “You know, maybe I should.” I knew him, I knew that scene, and all of that stuff was important to me, too. And I thought David was a great character to write about.

And a mysterious one.

Yeah. And all that stuff—the East Village scene, the AIDS crisis, and the culture war—was all stuff I had written about as a reporter. I had lived through it, and I thought, this is something I could probably really do. And when you choose a book topic, you have to find something you can live with for years and be engaged by for years. I thought this would be it.

Was there ever any question about using “I” and placing yourself so directly within the narrative itself?

I felt I had to be in there at certain points especially in the last chapter where I think the reader would have lost a lot by not having my observations about what David was going through at that time [of his death in 1992]. I mean, I talked to all the people still around who were with him, but I actually wrote things down in my journal. It just would have seemed kind of phony to not put myself in there. And I don’t really appear that much until that end part, where he’s calling me and I go to his loft and stay with him for periods of time. I just felt I had to be in there while making sure that it never becomes about me.

What were the challenges of actually writing this?

Sometimes it comes down to nuances. The thing that surprised me: in all of the mountain of stuff that’s been written about the East Village, there were hardly any actual facts in there, like when did Civilian Warfare Gallery move from East 11th Street to Avenue B? No one knew. It seemed like it took forever to find out little things I thought were really crucial to be able to tell this story in the right way. I don’t think the East Village has been covered in quite this way in any of those other books.

Some people consider this book also to be a history of the East Village arts scene. Were you conscious of that at the time? Or were you thinking this is just the background I need to explain David’s life?

Right from the start I saw it also as cultural history. It was David’s story, but it also had the East Village, the AIDS crisis, and the culture war. But he was a central character in each of those things. So I knew I could tell that cultural history through him. That was a thing I was excited to be able to do.

I wonder what he would think of things today.

I think about that a lot. Even just walking down the street in the East Village, I think, “Wow, what if David could see this?” You know, some new thing that’s moved into the neighborhood or moved out of the neighborhood, the way it’s changed here, all that build-up on the lower East Side. He would be so shocked.

We always connect Wojnarowicz with New York. We know he’s a New Yorker and he’s part of the New York art scene. But he did have an incredible fascination with other places: Paris, Mexico, and the southwest.

I even think that if he lived, he might have moved out of here. He really had problems with New York as much as he loved certain aspects of it. I described in here how I ran into him on the street one day, and he just had that big success. I congratulated him, and he said, “If I were straight, I’d move to a small town right now and get a job in a gas station.”

Did he ever appear in your dreams?

I have dreamt about him. Soon after his death, I dreamt about him. And I think I dreamt about him after I finished the book, but not while I was writing it.

I ask because when I look at his writing—the published writing but also his journals—he writes so much about his dreams.

And he was a lucid dreamer. I mean, he could recognize within the dream that he was having a dream, and there would be layers. I only put in the dreams that I thought really were apropos, of course. But there was that one about [Peter] Hujar where he dreams that they’re looking for that lake. And he wakes up in the dream, and he’s still in another dream, but Hujar is there in that dream, and he tells him about the dream he’s just had. But they’re still in a dream. And then they go and look for the lakes. That was amazing to me. I don’t think I could write a biography if I did not have this access, to some extent, to David’s inner life because of the journals, because of things he wrote in certain letters to friends.

I found audiotapes at Fales where he would record things, especially during the years when he wasn’t really writing things down. He made these audiotapes, and no one had ever listened to them until I did, and I transcribed all of them. Especially after he was diagnosed [as HIV+], he would talk about his fears about dying, you know, but all kinds of things. His disgust with the art world or whatever it was that was on his mind, and he would put dreams in there. I felt like I had some access to his inner life, and I would not have had an interest in writing a biography otherwise.

What’s the biggest the biggest surprise about Wojnarowicz himself that you learned from this research?

I think it was just the fact that he hid parts of his life. I didn’t realize how secretive he was until I started doing this.

Why do you think he was like that?

When he first started talking about his life, he simplified it. He doesn’t want to talk about his mother. He doesn’t really want to talk about his siblings. It’s too complicated, too painful. And so it becomes, “I had this abusive father, then I was a hustler, and then I was saved by Peter Hujar.” That became the basic narrative arc. He always felt like he was an alien and that people wouldn’t accept him as he was. He created camouflage. Even the last picture in the book where he’s posing with the baby elephant skull and all the clutter in the loft, he’s wearing makeup. I asked [photographer] Nan Goldin, “Why was he wearing makeup?” In his regular life, he never did. But she said he wanted to wear a mask and felt more comfortable being seen if he had a mask on.

What is the one thing about Wojnarowicz you want people to get from this book?

Well, I don’t know if there’s necessarily just one thing. I guess I’d like people to see what I admired about him, which is his courage and his drive and his ability to sort of turn dross into gold or whatever you want to call it. But one thing I also hope people get from this book is a love story. It’s that tremendous love that he had with Hujar, even though it wasn’t sexual, except for the very, very beginning. That was like such a total commitment on both their parts to being each other’s family in a way. And then his relationship with Tom. Although it was difficult for David to trust that there was any love coming from someone who said, “I love you.” I think by the end of his life he actually did believe it and know it. And that made me happy because I was there to observe that. I saw that when David was in the hospital and Tom would walk in the room he would just light up because Tom was there. And Tom was so dedicated to David and still is. Tom was the one encouraging me to do this book and what he said was I want the truth to come out, whatever it is. Because he knew there were things about David he didn’t know. And he said okay, whatever it is, I want the truth to come out. And here we have it. I hope.

Photo: Cynthia Carr (Photo Credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sander)
Nels P. Highberg photo

About: Nels P. Highberg

Nels P. Highberg is an associate professor of Rhetoric and Professional Writing at the University of Hartford.

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