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Interview with Wayne Koestenbaum

Perhaps what’s gathered here is not an interview at all. Precisely what it is, we’ll think about in a moment but first, the familiar, giddy ritual of introductions. I think I should introduce Wayne Koestenbaum with great ceremony, the sort that might have anticipated the arrival of some of his great, glamorous past subjects like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Judy Garland or Maria Callas. Or else I should opt for something bright, anarchic and bawdy, echoing the kind of introduction that might have heralded the entrance of Harpo Marx (another of his much-loved subjects… or objects?) whilst still performing in vaudeville. Taken with this particular approach, I’ve found a suitable soundbite, borrowed from his pal Bruce Hainley which describes his work as resembling ‘a late night drunken three-way between Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag’, all present and correct though we might add to this ménage-a-trois the poet Frank O’ Hara, or Georges Bataille at his most mischievous, making room for Walter Benjamin no doubt somewhere in the shadows.

 

The best introduction, maybe, is simply his work. Wayne Koestenbaum is the author of many books including The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (2012), a heroic undertaking in which every frame of Harpo Marx’s onscreen appearances is analysed as per Koestenbaum’s dictum, ‘We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death’; Humiliation (2011), on the varieties and pleasures of shame; Hotel Theory (2007), a typically playful text, half meditation on the cultural history of the hotel, half imaginary dialogue between Lana Turner and Liberace, placed side by side on the page and without the articles ‘a’, ‘an’ or ‘the’; and Andy Warhol (2001), a nonpareil portrait – though ‘case study’ is maybe a more fitting term – of the artist in all his fascinating blankness, which expertly dissects his peculiar body and extraordinary art. He has also authored many books of poetry – including Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films (2006), The Milk of Inquiry (1999) and Rhapsodies of A Repeat Offender (1994) – and works of fiction while teaching at the City University of New York.

 

So if this isn’t an interview exactly, what is it? Before it began over email in late summer 2012, it seemed obvious that many of the ordinary lines of questioning wouldn’t sire particularly enthralling answers – nothing is more boring anyway than a proper answer. Much of Wayne Koestenbaum’s personal history or anything ‘confessional’ is contained within the work itself. It seemed better to alight on certain recurrent obsessions, scenes and icons, or offer up artworks, photographs or an audio recording for special contemplation. These particular ‘questions’ were undertaken in homage to his great, long-standing ‘Legend’ column in Cabinet. What came in response is a set of vocal exercises, illustrations of his unique, playful writerly voice in all its marvellous – if we might set things at a suitably operatic pitch – coloratura, its virtuosic rush of high and low allusion, sly sotto voce asides, startling metaphor, swoops between registers and hypnotic rhythm. His responses came most often concluded with the words,
Yours, Wayne

 

Q

The White Review

—  You draw on incidents from your childhood throughout your work but can you supply a primal scene?

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  To illustrate my upbringing, I’ll offer three images.

 

1. Lying in bed, I tried to decode or find meaning in the pattern of ridges, bumps, and declivities on my bedroom wall’s white plaster. I imagined the lumps as continents, islands. But there were too many, as Jude the Obscure would put it: too many land formations, none of them named. This primal scene of staring – of confused beholding – is the origin of my interest in abstract art and in difficult (or enigmatic) literature.

 

2. In fourth grade, I took up trumpet-playing. For two or three years, I showed promise. After the third year, the illusion of promise vanished. I consider the departure of my trumpet prowess to be one of my first (remembered) exposures to the theme of downfall, which has haunted my written work.

 

3. My first role on stage: I was an extra in The Music Man, a production at the school, San Jose State College, where my father was a philosophy professor. As extra, I had one bit of ‘business’: I pulled the coat-tails of Iowa City’s mayor. I tugged on them. A tiny apprenticeship in staged effrontery?

Q

The White Review

—  Another characteristic of your work is its fragmentary shape. The text often appears in pieces, broken up into scenes, numbered incidents and flashes. What’s especially alluring about the fragment as a form?

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  Already, in my answers, I’m practicing this form, which I can’t abandon, even if I consider it the realm of the not-yet-matured. The pleasure that fragments give me is the serenity of arrested development – chosen this time, not imposed. My logic behaves most soundly and tightly when I leave out the explanation. (Can logic ‘behave’?) I came to fragments early – in college, sophomore year, when, writing short stories, I realised that I could function more effectively in prose when I omitted most of the interstitial or connective tissue.

 

I suppose I was responding not only to Ezra Pound, whom I took seriously as dead mentor, but to the fiction then becoming fashionable in the United States – exemplified by Raymond Carver (whose story ‘Fat’ I took as model of the ‘thin’ – fragmented – aesthetic I wished to embody) and Leonard Michaels, who was one of my teachers at Johns Hopkins University, where I got my MA in fiction writing. My tendency toward fragments received official confirmation when I read Michel Leiris’s Manhood (translated by Richard Howard), an autobiography told with a minimum of emotion and a maximum of pseudo-ethnographic detachment, facilitated by the surrealist author’s use of fragments to construct his narrative.

 

Fragments neatly corresponded to my writing process, which involves a collage procedure – cutting and rearranging bits of material composed separately. Because writing is indeed a process, a set of actions and methods which precede acute consciousness of their significance, I’ve found that an unthinking and intuitive reliance on fragments serves as an enabling motor, a way to ensure that my engine runs, however faulty and sputtering its revolutions.

Q

The White Review

—  In returning to these childhood scenes are you attempting a kind of exorcism, as if purging yourself of past traumas?

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  Writing about a scene doesn’t destroy or deplete it. The act of writing temporarily neutralises the scene, prevents it from vibrating or radiating or fuming. But then a skin forms over the written-about scene, and when the skin is peeled off, the writer realises that the scene beneath the skin has utterly changed, and demands a new sounding.
I’ll give an example of a scene that refuses to be exorcised. One central scene in Humiliation – my witnessing of a third-grade classmate’s punishment – has recurred in my prose and poetry several times over the last twenty years. In the poem ‘Rhapsody’, from my book Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender (1994), I write: ‘The butt of a bad child is a holy place, / sanctified by the paddle’s notice. / I watched the wicked – / selected by dice / or by straws – / endure the board’s touch, / whacks like open fifths.’

 

Twelve years pass, and then I write an essay, ‘The Rape of Rusty’ (which appears in my collection of essays, My 1980s & Other Essays, forthcoming from FSG in August 2013), which centres on this scene of the boy’s punishment: ‘I replay the punishment scene – Mrs. Fact paddling Robbie’s naked ass – whenever I write, or speak in public, or lecture to a class…’ And though I say, ‘I’ve saved this secret, this story of Robbie’s punishment, for decades,’ in fact I hadn’t saved it: I’d written about it twelve years earlier, in ‘Rhapsody’.

 

Finally, in 2011, in Humiliation, I give this oft-revisited scene its largest (and most contextual) incarnation, but I preface the revisitation by describing (and semi-apologising for) the fact that I must continue to replay this scene: ‘I’ve tried repeatedly to write about the experience I consider the model for all humiliations I’ve seen or endured. This scene – my own version of a child is being beaten – dominates my imagination with an obscure power, a combination of horror and fascination, that I can never adequately put to rest.’ With that phrase, ‘never adequately put to rest,’ I authorise myself to return, in a few years, if necessary, to this same scene, because history is history, it stays the same, even if the phrases we apply to it – and the conclusions we draw from it – alter with every repetition.

Q

The White Review

—  I’ve started thinking of obsession as the dominant trait of your work, obsessions with particular figures (for instance, Warhol, Harpo Marx, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and an obsessive method of paying attention towards works of art. How does it manifest itself within your work?

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  Obsession is characterological, somatic, inherited, cultural: Midrash, psychoanalysis, fandom, nerves. Just yesterday I accidentally re-saw the opening title sequence for the George Cukor/Cecil Beaton My Fair Lady; the sumptuous display of flowers – Covent Garden pastels, obscenely atopical – reminded me of the trance I fell into when first seeing that sequence in a movie theatre in 1965. Call that original witnessing of the title-sequence flowers a primal scene of obsessive, ensorcelled viewing, an experience that sets off a lifetime’s project of figuring out why that experience provoked so much rapture.

 

Obsession: my desire lands not on the film’s story, its characters, its actors, or its larger meanings. My desire falls on the flowers, displayed one by one, a pregnant cornucopia, nature morte. (Filmed flowers are dead flowers.) My procedure – in writing and in daily fantasy – is to choose this ancillary passage (the title sequence) and to expend all of my linguistic passion on this addendum, this prelude. I choose to focus on the flowers and to spend too long describing my response to them. I make up an entire romance about first seeing the filmed flowers. I’m thinking now about the poet Francis Ponge: he keeps trying to describe one thing, one sensation, and he fails to describe it, and he tries again, and he retains each attempt in his finished composition, which therefore always seems unfinished.

Q

The White Review

—  What does the procedure of writing involve for you? I imagine a state that veers between ecstasy and anguish.

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  Writing involves intense over-stimulation – muscular, libidinal, chemical, imaginative. I push and push myself, like Hoffmann’s Olympia, until I sing, and then I perish. What I sing isn’t finest coloratura; but I need to push myself as if the result of this pressure – this self-engendered Academy of Pain – will be an inimitable mad scene. My answer to your question is: writing for me involves anguish, ecstasy, yes – and also frustration, disappointment, horror, embarrassment. I subject myself to inward Karajanesque ferocious coaching; a sadistic répétiteur, I prod myself until the larynx opens. I am usually surprised or disgusted by what I write – but simultaneously I’m excited, giddy, on edge.

 

Just today, I wrote an essay about Blondie. Beginning it, I thought I had nothing to say. And then, slowly, the fantasies and phrases took flight. I felt airsick. Where was the air-traffic controller? The process of fantasy and argument taking hold – even now, as I write this workaday sentence – seizes my body with a constricting force that I find exquisitely painful, although it is a sensation I seek. Syntax gives me heartache; the sentence traps me within its system. The movement of a sentence feels not like liberating voyage but like the half-nelson of a cruel wrestler, a kidnapper, who wants my thoughts but despises (and seeks to destroy) my body. I wonder why I’ve chosen writing as vocation, given how cruelly the process treats my nervous system.

Q

The White Review

—  Where does poetry end and prose begin? I wonder whether many of your sentences are lines of poetry in secret?

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  Yes, sentences are poetic lines in secret. So are paragraphs. It would be simplest to say that the paragraph is the stanza, the sentence is the line. But – I consciously use (or overuse) commas, because they provide line breaks, an interstice or vacation I want in prose, which allows no Club Med except the comma. Copy-editors always take out my commas, and I put them back in.

 

In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which I reread yesterday, I ran into this comma: ‘Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognise as modern.’ Sontag separates the two parallel verbs – make up, thicken – with an essentially inessential comma, a comma that provides thickening. The extra comma literally thickens the sentence, allows a moment of congealing and pause. I identify with that thickening. I could say many specific things about how I use prose as a form of disguised poetry, but I’ll settle for this one point, this disquisition on the comma, and I’ll bow to Sontag for exemplifying the thickened atmosphere a comma can provide.

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve become more and more active as a painter recently. I thought the best way to acknowledge this would be for my questions to abandon language momentarily in place of pictures and ask you to indulge in a little ekphrasis (Editor’s note: the images discussed are placed above the text in a slideshow). How do you respond to Joseph Cornell? There are certain symmetries between his approach and yours in writing and in painting. What radiates from Cornell – to me – is the remnant of one of your favourite attributes: shininess; lustre which has been lost or slowly eroded. I believe you were working on something about this quality before you started work on Harpo?

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  Ekphrasis. (Love the ‘k’ in ekphrasis, like the ‘k’ in Elektra.) I dig Joseph Cornell’s blue anything: his blues, like Warhol’s (Blue Liz as Cleopatra, Blow blew?] Job), declare melancholy as the new optimism: i.e., Cornell asks, as does Warhol, that we plunge deeply into our fantasies, at risk of psychosis, to find the kingdom of the inner fold, Artaud’s land, the principality of the ‘inner Satan’ (to put an infernal spin on the American cliché ‘inner child’). Cornell kept dossiers, diaries; he made random, entranced jottings; and he assembled refined artworks. In Cornell I romanticise and hope to emulate the non-difference between jotting and artwork. Both are trash, both are gold. ‘Homage’, for Cornell, was the habitual posture – like vaguely Catholic Warhol, accustomed to kneeling and enshrining.

 

Yes, I thought about writing a book on ‘shininess’, but the concept was so large, I got lost, and I chose Harpo instead, knowing that I could fit shininess into Harpo, but that I might not be able to fit Harpo into shininess. I haven’t been clear enough about Cornell’s blues: the synaesthetic pitch (C minor?) of ice, of no-sensation, much like the block of ice that Harpo delivers or mis-delivers (throwing it out the window) in Horse Feathers. About that failed delivery, in my Harpo book I write: ‘What does it mean to be absorbed in a delivery that no one wants? What does it mean to deliver an undesired block of information…? Hit man, he obeys orders. I understand his lone-gunman isolation, his ice-delivering incommunicativeness. This book is my block of ice.’

 

Cornell solved the delivery quandary by sending art through the gift economy’s Fed-Ex: turn the artwork into an homage, make a collage for Susan Sontag, make a box for Tamara Toumanova – make sure that the block of ice gets successfully delivered by addressing it to a specific idol. Cornell micromanaged delivery of his blocks of ice, lest they melt or get thrown (Harpo-style) out the window. But sometimes Cornell’s blocks of ice, his boxes, were aimed at dead idols. How can you deliver a block of ice to the dead ballerina? I suppose if the artwork is already trafficking in dead spirits, it has the knack of speaking to its fellow dead; Cornell’s necrophiliac pen pal circuit ensures receipt. Shininess (or blueness) results from the deadness of the speaker and the listener (the swan is dead, the ballerina is dead, ballet is dead, romanticism is dead); the artwork’s mausoleum holds out the hope that deadness has the attractiveness of a diamond on Liz Taylor’s finger.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you think of perversion as an important part of your work?

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  I love the word pervert (as noun and as verb). Neo-romantically, I take the Shelley/Blake approach to Milton’s Satan, and presume that wrong turns, irresponsible flights, meanderings, deviations, and other acts at cross purposes, work toward beneficial aesthetic ends. Satan’s flight wouldn’t be beautiful if it didn’t exemplify perversion. Freud might occasionally seem to speak against perversion’s power and sanctity, but he ends up being on the pervert’s side; Freud demonstrates (through his advocacy of over-interpretation and overdetermination) that, in the unconscious, any name, any number, any word, is a switch point for perversion’s energies. To care about words is to be a pervert; close reading is perverted reading. Emily Dickinson’s use of the dictionary – her randy reclamation of nouns and adjectives and verbs, corpuscles she wields volcanically and errantly – anticipate Freud’s presumption that to think is to delve, to dream is to destroy, to verbalise is to distort, to phrase is to foul.

Q

The White Review

—  Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander, ‘singer’ in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) – I’m retaining the tabloid press’s derisive quotation marks – and Kane’s second wife, who appears in the opera Salammbô, in a role far beyond her abilities.

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  I thought of asking you to send another image, because I don’t remember Citizen Kane very well. You’re right to note that failed singing – its glamour, perhaps – underpins my work; I try not to fail, as singer, but I understand the slumped, café-table posture of Susan Alexander, like a demimondaine in a Manet painting of modern life, embodying the Jean-Rhys-intense desolation of having failed at speech or song, those first careers. Rhys, a great writer, could hardly write: each sentence was a struggle.

 

This month, with pleasure, I’m listening, anew, to Anna Moffo’s final recordings, from the 1970s – recordings that few critics or listeners treated kindly. I’m finding, recuperatively, in every phrase that exhibits her timbre in its all-over plushness, a shocking pleasure and home – as if, belatedly, I’m daring to call home the place where few travellers before have ever felt comfortable. I can’t claim to be on some pinnacle of vanguardism, just because I’m enjoying Moffo sing an aria from Berlioz’s Damnations of Faust; but I enjoy, as a listener, returning to a place I thought I’d outgrown, a place that, no matter how much I’ve already traversed it in my written work, bears repeated excavation. Call it a perverted place.  In a voice you love, even if it is a voice considered over-the-hill, shot, declining, there remains a resplendence intricate and dignified, a resplendence that Susan Alexander, slumped, on screen, inadvertently embodies.

Q

The White Review

—  Nico and Andy Warhol as Batman and Robin in Esquire Magazine (1966).

A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  I identify – always have – with Bruce Wayne, because of his last name; and I identify with Robin, because of his smallness and subordination, and his rebellious claim to be indispensable. Only Batman finds him glorious, but Batman’s regard is sufficient nourishment.

 

Warhol’s willingness to ‘go twin’ (to take on twinship) with a beautifully icy and maybe blankness-containing blonde (I’m thinking of Eileen Myles’s evocatively titled The Importance of Being Iceland) inspires me, if not to emulation (what icy blonde would volunteer to be my double?), then to annotation: I want to note, with admiration, Warhol’s wish to go under (as if under sedation), to lose his identity, to pass into an ulterior existence as mere echo, but as glamorised echo. Warhol teaches us that it is more erotic to be an echo than to be an original.

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve played the agony uncle – with a certain slyness – on YouTube and salon.com. This involved offering advice concerning tales of humiliation. A familiar question clears its throat: what advice would you give to the unpublished writer, who will have to wrestle with humiliation as soon as their work is printed?
A

Wayne Koestenbaum

—  Whatever the humiliations that sometimes come with publication (bad reviews, no reviews, pulped books, the Scylla and Charybdis of being ignored and being panned), being unpublished is worse, though it contains a soupçon of invisible glory, a perverse and inaudible tincture (Emily Dickinson’s ‘Degree’, the soul having selected her own society). I won’t say much about the glory; I’ll stick to the ignominy. The pleasure of being unpublished: work, when unseen, unread, unheard, can retain its richness, its slowness of unfolding – a slowness and amplitude than can be killed by the too-cursory, condemnatory glance of the passerby. I try to develop an immunity to those destructive gazes, but I haven’t yet achieved it.

 

I’d certainly advise the unpublished writer to consider that the work she or he is doing in private now to consolidate the artistic practice is permanent bullion in storage – an underground mine, a ‘Finer Forge’, in Dickinson’s phrase, burning within; and I’d urge the now-unpublished writer to remember this gem-array, gathering now, and to find ways, in the future, to reinvoke that ingot, whenever the destructive gazes of the non-comprehenders threaten to decimate one’s resources of self-belief. To put it more concretely: remember the notebooks, the afternoons, the poems written on index cards while doing time at a low-paying depressing job; remember the rejection slips; remember the hundreds of pages of a novel, written too quickly, perhaps, or slaved over too intensely and myopically; remember these talismans and indices of work committed, of inspiration or simply of grunt persistence. When I feel humiliated or depressed about the poor reception or non-reception some written work of mine receives, I think of my notebooks, journals, file drawers – all the things, the typed pages, the handwritten pages, all of which I compulsively save – as if these things were pets, or icons, or reliquaries. Reliquaries of what? Simply of the fact that I did time.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Charlie Fox is a writer based in Bristol, UK. He is currently working on a project about recluses.



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