Rob Couteau is a writer and visual artist from Brooklyn. He's the author of the novel Doctor Pluss; the literary anthology Collected Couteau, the epistolary memoir Letters from Paris, the poetry collection The Sleeping Mermaid, and the travel memoir The Paris Journals. In 1985 he won the North American Essay Award, a competition open to North American writers and sponsored by the American Humanist Association. After living as an expat in Paris for twelve years (1988-2000), he now resides in New Paltz, NY. He’s currently working on a collection of interviews with other authors.
His work as a literary critic, interviewer, and social commentator has been featured in books such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera: A Reader’s Guide, by Thomas Fahy, Conversations with Ray Bradbury, ed. Steven Aggelis, and David Cohen’s Forgotten Millions, a book about the homeless mentally ill.
Rob Couteau & Amanda Levin (2009)
Couteau has developed an interview style that is intuitive and free ranging as well as remarkably warm, humorous, and personal. He selects authors with whom he already feels a strong bond as a result of having enjoyed their work, and he uses the interview format as an artistic medium through which to forge a deeper understanding of an author’s creative process, rather than as a confrontational tool or as a superficial exchange of information.
Education and Creative Influences:
In his memoir Letters from Paris, the author chronicles the events that triggered and fueled his artistic passions. A decisive experience was the gift of an oil-painting kit at the age of six from his paternal uncle Bruce Couteau (who had artistic talent but who never pursued any formal training). From that moment on, he considered himself an artist. After attending a conservative Catholic elementary school that offered no classes in art, in 1969 he passed the entrance exam for the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, but instead enrolled in John Dewey, an experimental high school with a strong emphasis on music and art that had opened the same year. In 1973, during his senior year, a teacher arranged a Saturday afternoon class for a select group to draw directly from the female nude. This was the only class of its kind in any Brooklyn high school at that time. It was from this experience that he developed a lifelong passion for the beauty of the nude and a love of working directly from the model.
In 1974 he attended Hunter College in Manhattan, where he continued his art studies and enrolled in classes in comparative religion and Buddhism taught by George Elder (author of The Body: An Encyclopedia of Archetypal Symbolism), who proved to be a major intellectual influence. Through Elder, he developed an enduring interest in the work of Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, and the study of comparative religion. These subjects are explored in Letters from Paris, and they inform much of his fictional work.
After a year at Hunter, he transferred to the State University at New Paltz, where he graduated Cum Laude, in 1978, with a Bachelor of Science in Art Education. Finding himself at odds with the Abstract Expressionist faculty there, he designed independent-study courses with a sympathetic professor and enrolled heavily in drawing classes that focused on the study of the nude minus any theoretical or dogmatic concerns. Therefore, even while in university, he remained largely a self-taught artist.
Couteau never formally studied creative writing, but, during his junior year, he composed two vignettes, each written in a first-person confessional style influenced by the work of Henry Miller. After receiving an enthusiastic critique from a young professor, he decided to pursue writing and to abandon painting. This journey from art to literature and back again is chronicled in Letters from Paris and The Paris Journals.
Although he had dabbled in poetry while in high school, he started to compose fiction only at the relatively late age of twenty. But through the intellectual influence of his father, who read Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other juvenile literature to him as a child, books and libraries had always played a major role in his life. He was fascinated by the first editions of “boy adventure books” that he found in the house – dog-eared copies of his father’s own childhood collection – such as the Hardy Boys series from the 1920s and ’30s; Bomba the Jungle Boy; and the Tom Swift stories, first published in 1910, which explore themes of science fiction, invention, and technology. Later favorites were Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
One of the first “adult” novels he read was Russell H. Greenan’s proto-crossgenre account of art and madness, It Happened in Boston? which he credits as an early thematic influence on his own novel, Doctor Pluss. Dostoyevsky’s disturbing account of inner turmoil in The Underground Man – assigned reading during high school – also made a lasting impression. Finally, two Chinese classics, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (first encountered in the high school library) and the Wilhelm-Baynes translation of the “I Ching” (a gift from a friend), became lifelong companions: the former for its succinct aphoristic genius, the latter for its mystical use of nature metaphors.
Couteau mentions a handful of influential authors whom he studied during his late teens and early twenties. He first read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at the age of nineteen and, several years later, examined the original edition of Leaves in the rare book division at the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. It was Whitman’s “open, flaneur spirit” that most impressed him ("his ability to witness, absorb, and transform"), and he committed himself to prose poetry as a result of this early love of the bard. Henry Miller’s Black Spring was also crucial in his development, because it was the book that triggered his interest in pursuing a literary career, chiefly due to its wild, experimental use of language, which struck him as immensely enjoyable both to read and to attempt to write. Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn would also remain a favorite that he returned to several times. Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan both appealed to him for similar reasons. In each of these first-person "confessional" works, a bold emotional directness is enhanced by a rhythmic, melodious linguistic style.
While in his late twenties, two other influential novels were Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. As with Miller, he was especially struck by Selby’s use of local vernacular and his portrayal of Brooklyn scenes and characters. This was something he could both identify with and creatively emulate. And he was awed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s use of simple language to evoke complex psychological states and to portray grim reality in a poetic manner, as well as his ability to compose sentences that continued for paragraphs or even pages, each hosting dialogues rendered without quotation marks, yet always maintaining their clarity.
In one way or another, all these works fell into a psychic brew that resulted in forging his own style and approach to writing. Other books that helped to shape his poetry and prose include William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Gregory Corso’s Gasoline, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Charles Bukowski’s Love is a Dog from Hell.
In a review of The Sleeping Mermaid for the Midwest Book Review, Willis M. Buhle writes, “Novelist and literary enthusiast Rob Couteau brings readers part of his love with The Sleeping Mermaid, a book of flowing poetry and thought that asks plenty of questions and offers plenty of answers. The Sleeping Mermaid is a poetry collection well worth considering.”
In his Introduction to The Sleeping Mermaid, the renowned literary biographer Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno writes of how the author’s “poetic excursions take us to many places: to the Paris of Rimbaud and Picasso, to the Native North Americans, to mythology and history and how the woman he is encountering is seducing him as he seduces her (and us), and finally, how alone, the cosmos plays itself out at 3 a.m. when the only lap dog is memory.”
Sawyer-Lauçanno calls Couteau's novel Doctor Pluss an example of “amazingly beautiful, haunting prose” and considers it “a great book.” Jim Feast, in his Evergreen Review essay on Doctor Pluss and Collected Couteau, remarks upon Couteau’s “Intellectual freshness, richness, and potency,” adding: “An impressively creative writer, whom Barney Rosset urged me to review.” (Rosset, the former owner of Grove Press and the first American publisher of Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet, led the legal battle to publish D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.)
As a visual artist, Couteau works primarily in oil. His paintings explore variations on the female nude – often composed in a sexually explicit, erotic manner – and are inspired by working directly with a model. Several of his larger-than-lifesize nudes were exhibited at the Varga Gallery in Woodstock, NY, from 12 September 2009 to 12 March 2010. His paintings are also featured on his book covers, making for an unusual and provocative design.
In 2009, he devoted a year to paying homage to Picasso. The complete collection of these works is composed of 67 oil paintings, 150 drawings and acrylics, and 16 sculptures in terra cotta. The Van Buren Gallery in New Paltz hosted his one-man show, “A Year with Picasso: A Reinterpretation of Major and Minor Works,” from 9 January 2010 to 21 February 2010. The exhibit also featured a reading by Amanda Levin from The Sleeping Mermaid, which contains several poems that portray Picasso paintings.
His more recent work, "Seventy-five Variations on Titian's 'Venus of Urbino,'" features a series of paintings and drawings that each attempt to reinterpret this single Renaissance masterpiece.
An avid genealogist, Couteau is the direct descendant of:
* Charlemagne (742 - 814), the "Father of Europe" who was also known as Charles the Great, the founder of the Carolingian Empire.
* Siegfried I, (c.922-998) the first count of Luxembourg, who built the fortress of Luxembourg in 963.
* Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson, King of Denmark and Norway (935 - 986). Harold erected the Jelling stones, which bear the most well known runic inscriptions in Denmark, in honor of his parents. The Bluetooth communications protocol is named after him.
* Hugh Capet King of France (939- 996) and his descendants King Robert II (972 – 1031) and King Henry I of France (1008-1060)
* Saint Ferdinand, (1199-1252), King of Castile and King of León, who was canonized by Pope Clement X in 1671.
* King Henry IIIrd (1207-1272) and of his descendents King Edward the Ist, IInd, IIIrd, and IVth of England.
* Sir Knight Walter Blount (1349 - 1403) who appears as a prominent character in the first part Shakespeare's Henry IV (as "Sir Walter Blunt") and who was an early supporter of Henry IV in his bid to become king. Blount served as the royal standard bearer during the Battle of Shrewsbury, was mistaken for the king, and killed in combat.
Recent Art Exhibitions:
* Van Buren Gallery, New Paltz, NY. “A Year with Picasso: A Reinterpretation of Major and Minor Works,” 9 January - 21 February 2010.
* Varga Gallery, Woodstock, NY. Group show, 12 September 2009 - 12 March 2010.
* Unison Gallery, New Paltz, NY. “Atmosphere (Mini-Works).” Group show, 31 August - 28 September 2009.
* poems from the late twentieth century. (This chapbook is now part of the Special Collections of New York University, Yale University Library, Colby College, Michigan State University Libraries, Northwestern University, and UCLA Library.)
* Doctor Pluss ISBN 0-9801880-1-6
* Collected Couteau: Poems, Letters, Essays, Interviews. ISBN 0-9801880-2-4
* Doctor Pluss. Second, Revised Edition, with an Afterward by Jim Feast ISBN 0-9801880-8-3
* Collected Couteau: Poems, Letters, Essays, Interviews. Second, Revised Edition ISBN 0-9801880-6-7
* The Paris Journals ISBN 0-9801880-4-0
* Letters from Paris ISBN 0-9801880-3-2
* The Sleeping Mermaid. With an Introduction by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno ISBN 0-9801880-5-9
Writing Published in Periodicals:
Couteau’s poetry, fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in over thirty-five magazines, newspapers, and literary journals, including The Alembic; Anima; Arete; Bloomsbury Review; Blueline; Cadillac Cicatrix; Chrysalis; Colere; Confluent Educational Journal; Croton Review; The European; Footwork; The Garden State; Emerging Civil War; Evergreen Review; Hawaii Pacific Review; Heavenbone; The Humanist; Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy; Lapis; Lift Magazine; Mochila Review; New Leaves Review; Occupy the Press; Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology; Open Road Integrated Media; Out of Our; The Paris Voice; Passager; Psychological Poems: Journal of Outsider Poetry; Quantum; Rain Taxi; Rockhurst Review; Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture; Venice Magazine; Versitude; West Hills Review; White Pelican Review; Xanadu; and Z Miscellaneous.
Interviews with other authors:
* Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno: “The Biographer of Paul Bowles and Other Expatriates Talks about Writing the Outsider’s Story: An Interview with Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno,” Bloomsbury Review, March 1991, and later featured in Collected Couteau. Conducted in Paris, summer 1990.
* Ray Bradbury: “The Romance of Places: An Interview with Ray Bradbury,” Paris Voice, November 1990; Quantum: Science Fiction & Fantasy Review, spring 1991; and Nelson Thornes Framework English Resource Book 2, ed. Geoff Reilly and Wendy Wren (Cheltenham, (U.K.: Nelson Thornes Ltd., 2003). The complete interview was featured in Conversations with Ray Bradbury (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004) and in Collected Couteau. Conducted in Paris, fall 1990.
* Hubert Selby: “Defining the Sacred: Hubert Selby on Spirituality, the Creative Will, and Love,” Rain Taxi Review of Books (online), December 1999. The complete interview later appeared in Collected Couteau. Conducted via telephone from Paris, 20 September 1999.
* Albert Hofmann: “Albert Hofmann: An Appreciation. A Brief Interview with the Discoverer of LSD,” Rain Taxi Review of Books, June 2008. Conducted via telephone from New Paltz, NY, on 13 April 2008.
* Michael Korda: “The Charmed Life: A Conversation with Michael Korda,” Rain Taxi Review of Books (online), summer 2010. Conducted via telephone from NewPaltz, NY, on 22 April 2010.
* Jeffrey H. Jackson: “Remembering the Deluge: An Interview with Jeffrey H. Jackson,” Rain Taxi Review of Books (online), December 2010. Conducted via telephone from New Paltz, NY, on 20 June 2010.
* Robert Roper: “An Interview with Robert Roper, Author of Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War,” Emerging Civil War (online), October 2011. Conducted via telephone from New Paltz, NY, on 12 October 2010.
* Justin Kaplan: “The Mystery of the Man: Justin Kaplan Talks about America’s Greatest Poet,” Couteau's Fine Arts and Publications (online), December 2010. Conducted via telephone from New Paltz, NY, on 22 December 2010.
* William Scott: “An Interview with William Scott, author of Troublemakers: Power, Representation, and the Fiction of the Mass Worker, Couteau's Fine Arts and Publications (online), October 2011. Conducted in Zuccotti Park, Manhattan, 5 October 2011.
* The Role of the Least-Aspected Planet in Astrocartography. Planetary Symbolism in Astrocartography and Transcendental Astrology’’ (Reviewed in the Mountain Astrologer.) ISBN 0-9801880-0-8
* The Role of the Least-Aspected Planet in Astrocartography. Planetary Symbolism in Astrocartography and Transcendental Astrology. Fourth, Revised Edition ISBN 0-9801880-7-5
* Couteau’s Fine Arts and Publications. Official Rob Couteau Web site.
* Review of The Sleeping Mermaid, Midwest Book Review, by Willis M. Buhle, August 2010.
* “Defining the Sacred: Hubert Selby on Spirituality, the Creative Will, and Love.” Couteau’s interview with Hubert Selby.
* “Off the Palette: Rob Couteau.” Interview with Rob Couteau, HV Biz, 1 March 2010.
* “Best Bets for Sunday.” Review of “A Year with Picasso,” Times Herald Record, 14 February 2010.
* "Review of Rob Couteau at the Van Buren Gallery,” DWX blogspot, by Dan Wilcox, 7 February 2010.
* Review of Doctor Pluss and Collected Couteau in the Evergreen Review, by Jim Feast, December 2009.
* Couteau at the Van Buren Gallery.
* “Portrait Robert Couteau. Un americain a Paris,” by Alice Gaillard, Netsurf. Le magazine Internet, May 1998. Interview of Rob Couteau, in French, conducted in Paris.