An Interview with Wayne Koestenbaum
Colin Dekeersgieter, Issue 39
Going into this interview, I knew that speaking to Wayne Koestenbaum is a lesson unto itself. I had studied with Wayne at the City University of New York, Graduate Center and in a course titled Odd Secrets of the Line he would rhapsodically discuss the overlap between the syntax in Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle and Wassily Kandinsky’s geometrics. That’s why our table in a Chelsea café had three recording devices on it: I imagined I might quickly get lost in his labyrinthine mind and didn’t want to miss a thing. But before the recorder was on, he was transitioning seamlessly and logically between Brecht’s estrangement effect and typewriters, the Frankfurt School and airplanes.
When speaking to Wayne one is struck not just by his breadth of knowledge, which is vast, but the way in which he seems to have integrated this knowledge into his whole being. This is clear in his writing as well. His subjects range from opera (The Queen’s Throat) to men’s underwear (Cleavage); but no matter what the subject, the divide between the sacred and profane breaks down because of the intimacy with which he handles it. This is probably why his erudite criticism and poetry are often referred to as elliptical and chatty. But during our interview it became clear that while he was elliptical to the point of oracularity, he was most interested in the movement toward clarity and precision. This comes up in our discussion of his desire to remain amateurish, a word very few people would consider when describing him.
In this interview we discuss Wayne’s amateurish aesthetic, his ideal reader, his work as a painter, and much more. Finally, he gives one of the most thoughtful defenses of writing I have ever heard.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I wanted to ask about your development as a writer. Because your voice seems like it came into the world fully formed, like Dickinson’s or Crane’s.
KOESTENBAUM: That evolution contains growth and struggle as prose writer and poet. So I would say that I did not arrive in my life as a writer with my voice, it came through revision, largely. The first answer would be that I learned to sound like me through editing and changing my syntax as a result of revising. I wrote sentence by sentence, shortening the sentences and making each of them strange. And it was the process of making the sentences strange that gave me my tone.
I would say as a poet, I didn’t sound like me until I started writing in form, which I stopped doing after my first book of poems. But it was that process of having to stand outside of my thoughts and the flow of my associations, and to simply work within the syllable count. It’s like Brecht’s estrangement effect, form separated me from the ideology of my subjectivity and allowed me to spin it ironically. Basically any irony in my voice, which is a big part of my voice, comes through revision and distancing procedures: replacing vacuous words with words that are slightly turned away from the purpose. Like instead of saying, “I found my voice as a writer through revision,” it would be saying something like, “Revision, cuts, wounds, scars: I became me by subtracting me from the equation.” And then it sounds a little bit more like me.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: More aphoristic.
KOESTENBAUM: Yeah. I think that aphorism turns the flow of thought into sharply cropped compositions. And one of the laws of composition in visual and verbal media is that you need edges. You need a top, a bottom, and a left, and a right and that composition happens through the tension between the edges within the frame and if you don’t have a frame or a grid, there’s no tension.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Sontag said that aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking.
KOESTENBAUM: Aphorism is impatient because it’s not wanting days and years to pass before you can see the form. It wants to construct perspective by prematurely truncating—saying okay these words were dull but let’s make them undull by establishing a pressure chamber, which is the pressure chamber of aphorism. It has to do with creating tension in place of vacuousness and freefall.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You wrote Model Homes in ottava rima but it has a similar cadence to Pink Trance Notebooks, which is more freeform. The form in Pink Trance Notebooks is truncated by a sort of a Niedeckerian enjambment throughout, but they’re similar in the way they engage with tumbling aphorism.
KOESTENBAUM: I agree with you that a characteristic of my thought and my idiom is tumbling aphorism, lack of transitions, juxtapositions, and parataxis; when I’m writing in a form like ottava rima, the parataxis happens through a crowding of associations and narrative nuggets and aphorisms in a too-tight frame. In something like The Pink Trance Notebooks it’s through a lack of respect for traditional continuity and explanation and the temperament is the same.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Right, neither of the books are purely aphoristic but there are moments like “It’s best to copy lady ways” from Model Homes, which is aphoristic in that it makes claims without explanation.
KOESTENBAUM: Right, yes, yes. I do love generalizing. My father is a philosophy professor and I think I learned from him a certain “insta-remoteness” trick. It’s how to jump from the particulars of daily life immediately into an abstraction. And then getting a PhD and learning more about literary theory and becoming an investigator, an exegetical type, I learned how to theorize based on individual symptoms. And I’ve said in my Harpo Marx book, I go onto a sort of Jewish path with this and I talk about a temperament that I go back to. Walter Benjamin is one origin, or Freud; it’s a style of over-interpretation. Over-elabora-
tion of details. So aphorism comes, in my case, not from knowing that anything is true that I say but from taking on a rhetorical stance of seer-saying based on minute random data.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: So is it up to the reader to understand that there’s subtext? Because a large part of parsing aphorism, especially if it comes from random, exegetical data, is all the subtext. Do you think of your reader when you’re writing?
KOESTENBAUM: I think of the reader in that I think of all the people I’ve known who have been my supporters and friends and fellow writers. And since I’ve been around for a while, and have taught a lot, and have had a lot of education myself, there are so many people I’ve physically known, known as living beings in the room with me, whose ears are internalized for me as the people I’m writing with and for. The reader that I’m always thinking of is a community of parataxis-loving aesthetes that is assembled for me in somebody like Richard Howard or Susan Sontag in the kinds of taste affiliations that in their work as translator, critic, advocator, have made a place for. So I would say that it’s a certain great group of writers—Walser, Ponge, Genet, Stein, Lydia Davis, Anne Carson—really quirky, introverted, take-no-prisoners, tough love crafters that I’m thinking of when I write. It’s the people who understand that literature is a somewhat sacred fool’s task, a holy fool’s task; and that the goal is pleasing the gods of language, the gods of weird language. So I do think of the reader but I think of the reader as somebody who wants to see that experiment called literature pushed to a certain extreme for the benefit of other future explorers of weird terrain. So to that extent I’m like an experimenter, right? Because I’m experimenting with pushing my language and my thinking to certain extremes.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’re describing yourself in a lot of ways with that list of writers. It’s interesting to think that you’re writing with and to an amalgamated aesthete proper inside your head, because a lot of your writing comes across as being very talkative, and the resulting fragmentation can read as self-overhearing.
KOESTENBAUM: I love “self-overhearing.”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And for the reader that self-overhearing is like listening to a conversation through a swinging door, it slightly distances the reader while keeping them engaged. Is that something you’re conscious of?
KOESTENBAUM: My style has evolved from working within my limitations and maybe one of my limitations is impatience and distraction and a certain love of detail and abhorrence of continuity. And love of staring into space. Love of fog. Love of blur and isolation. And there’s a characteristic of me that I’ve never known exactly how to describe . . .
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Well that staring into space, that gaze, is a melancholic characteristic. And the melancholic is the aesthete in a lot of ways. Endymion and Adonis are aesthetes, and they’re perennial gazers. Endymion is gazing at the moon and Adonis is often fixed in space and can’t help but stare, which is a part of the glaze you write about in Notes on Glaze.
KOESTENBAUM: It’s weird because I rarely give myself enough credit for being melancholic and I’m very moved and honored to hear you describe me as such and to hear you describe the gaze and the glaze and this tropism toward mute staring as the characteristic of melancholy rather than a certain chattiness or comedic tone. When I write, I am staring into space. I’m very aware of that and I’ve tried to, more and more, keep away from subjects in my writing so I can dwell in the self-overhearing, the staring into space. I chide myself daily for not more responsibly grasping subjects rather than space or glaze, which is what I’ve chosen to grasp for the last four years of my writing.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The word grasp seems too heavy handed in a way. Because I feel like you reach into the direction of everything but never necessarily grasp onto something. I mean, you’re obsessive in your writing but the obsession isn’t a grasping because it’s blended with aphorism and a cultural synesthesia that allows you to move from Baudelaire’s alexandrine to Micky Dolenz. And all of a sudden we’re in a realm where we were discussing restraint and now we’re discussing high literature and The Monkees.
KOESTENBAUM: I can’t help it. I can’t. And I need more of that in my life. I need more of that fall into Micky Dolenz.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You wrote—I’m going to start quoting you at you—
KOESTENBAUM: By the way, I love the phrase “cultural synesthesia” and synesthesia says everything. Quote me.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You say in Notes on Glaze that you “cook up cheap thrills so [you] can feel alive enough to analyze.”
KOESTENBAUM: That’s the truest line I’ve ever written. That line, for whatever reason, says it all.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Well I see it with the Baudelaire and Micky Dolenz comparison but what I’m curious about is which one is the cheap thrill and which is the analysis?
KOESTENBAUM: Mickey Dolenz is the cheap thrill. And it isn’t because Mickey Dolenz is pop culture, it’s because the bringing him to bear on the subject evokes a certain facial composition. For me it’s like shag, square face, the erotics of Micky Dolenz arrives for me as a sudden jolt of energy. And the inadmissibil-
ity of Micky Dolenz offers a surplus of pleasure. There’s a sudden pleasure for me that is a little impermissible, it’s not deeply impermissible. But it’s like self-overhearing because at that moment he really did arrive in my consciousness.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That seems to be part of what the engagement in fragmentary writing opens up. Are you more likely to allow space for the thing that suddenly arrives?
KOESTENBAUM: To eject him would be depriving myself of some possible intelligence bulletin offered by my unconscious about history, or about me, or about America. So I have to pay attention to it. And it’s not nostalgic because nostalgia would imply that I was somehow wishing to paint a portrait of some safer, earlier, prelapsarian time that Micky epitomizes, when it’s his lostness and irrelevance that I’m fastened to.
If I were to say in that moment, “Baudelaire and a field of cadmium yellow daisies,” that would be a poetic indulgence and it would offer nothing new to the world. I don’t cut the line about Micky Dolenz when I’m editing, I would cut the line about a field of cadmium yellow daisies or something even more effortfully poetic than that. Because if I say “Micky Dolenz” then there he is, he exists, he is; there’s an unimpeachable factualness about him.
I’m revising the sequel to the Pink Trance Notebooks right now, which is called Camp Marmalade, and I cut almost everything that represented just an image. But if it was Micky Dolenz I didn’t cut it. I have lines about Aurore Clement, a French film actress that I doubt many people in America would know. I have a whole bit about Aurore Clement. I say, “The going in circles of Aurore Clement” and “We have not yet found a use for Aurore Clement.” I keep that stuff. So that’s essentially the same as Micky Dolenz, and it’s not nostalgia.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In My 1980s you write about Frank O’Hara’s disregard for cultural czars of his time, namely Warhol, and you talk about Sontag’s “obeying her own momentary and abiding enthusiasms.” You do tend to write about more esoteric cultural figures or figures from the past, like Micky Dolenz or Walter Pater. I was wondering what you think about contemporaneity and tradition.
KOESTENBAUM: I often think of an essay by Walter Benjamin called “The Author as Producer.” It’s his most communistic essay—it’s a very difficult essay and not my favorite. But he says that the revolutionary writer’s responsibility is to the materials. And to develop the materials for other writers, so therefore it’s like inventing a new tool. So I think that, ideally, writers or artists who are very attuned to the now and want to expand the formal possibilities are working on the behalf of all language makers to expand the means. So I do salute that. But I think that Walter Pater or any undiscovered thing from the past is, for me, my way of expanding the materials by making use of my particular cultural touchstones as concretely and specifically as I can without domesticating them to a generalization. And to allow all those things to be archaeological fragments in the cement.
Susan Sontag said somewhere that there’s more of the past than there is of the present. Thinking about it politically, I feel the destruction of the past is one of the perils of the planet. Whether it’s anti-intellectualism, which is the destruction of the libraries and the burning of books, or something like silent films—80% of them are gone. Or even the way the destruction of language (Trumpesque lies) destroys the meaning of words and destroys the ethics of communication that take place around carefully chosen words. That form of destruction represents an ecological, human tragedy, as does the destruction of the ozone, or the ocean, or the death of species, and so I think political issues having to do with our custodianship of the planet and of the treasures of human making are all connected. This is a poet’s justification for the culture of carefully chosen words as an ethical meaning. But I think you could look at the work of many poets, like Adrienne Rich, who believed that poetry should make things happen but understood it was because poets are caretakers of words in their dimensions as lovingly and carefully chosen entities. I think it’s really great for language, expressive language, to understand the limitations of its direct measurable impact on the world while also understanding, in perhaps a utopian vein, the possibilities that happen through rigorous work on the materials of language. It might have been in the essay on private poetry in Cleavage where I talk about Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson did not have an impact in the 1860s, but she has an enormous impact on the possibilities of American English. Or English period. Paul Celan translated her. What she does for language makers across the world is enormous and not measurable, but it’s as real as a noun is real.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You describe the writing in Notes on Glaze as “gnomic gaiety,” which I took to mean both aphoristic and elusive glee. And later you call glaze “throttled ineffability,” which made me think of Cezanne’s depictions of Mont Saint Victoire and the collapse of vision, execution, and the final product.
KOESTENBAUM: That’s really cool. I’m so glad you mentioned Mont Saint Victoire. When I knew nothing about art—and I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this in any essay or anything—I remember going to a Cezanne exhibit in the ’70s in New York and it was his Mont Sainte Victoire paintings. I was, I think, a sophomore in college and I remember specifically looking at those, looking at the blankness and thinking, What he is doing with ineffability is so amazing. And I bought a book called Cezanne In Perspective that had an essay on Cezanne by D. H. Lawrence. I remember reading that essay and thinking, I want to take my writing somewhere in that direction. So, that was the first step.
In the next step I read an essay by Robert Creeley (this is like in 1981, 1980) and he said something about how when he sits down to write a poem he never begins with an idea or a preconception, and he has a very elegant justification for not beginning with anything but letting the language take him. And I thought, That’s it. That’s totally it. So I guess somewhere the Mont Saint Victoire, throttled ineffability insight led me to a poetics between Frank O’Hara’s and Robert Creeley’s.
I think of the prosody of Pink Trance Notebooks as Creeleyesque and very much in response to his A Day Book. So it was the journey from Cezanne through Creeley to the poetics of not having a preexisting intention but still being a transcriber of experience. I do trust my experience while I’m writing to be the thing I’m documenting. And so maybe that’s different from Mont Sainte Victoire because he’s looking at a mountain. But he’s looking at his perception of his mountain. So he’s looking at the glaze that obscures his perception of the mountain.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And he returned to that subject until his death and his eyesight was getting progressively worse and I just imagine the eyes glazing over and the gaze transfiguring the mountain again and again.
KOESTENBAUM: That’s glaze. “The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death,” [Dickinson].
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’ve taken up painting. When you set out to start a painting is it the Creeley method or do you go in with a vision?
KOESTENBAUM: Now it’s the Creeley thing. Now it’s more freeform, to my detriment perhaps. I’m in a moment right now where I’m thinking, Choose a composition. I usually end up having to impose one later because there’s not enough tension within the frame. I don’t have enough of a repertoire of inborn, indwelling composition to create sufficient tension.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And why the switch to freeform?
KOESTENBAUM: What I’m trying to do by beginning paintings or works on paper without preconception is to become more versatile and imaginative in my use of the materials. So whether it’s scratching or dragging or combining or smudging, I’m trying to not be so governed by a graphic design but to discover things from the paper themselves.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Like Basquiat, letting the materials speak.
KOESTENBAUM: Yea, like to put a layer down of anything and then once it’s dry to, say, put more paint on and to drag the paint over it and then scratch the paint and let myself be surprised by what I discover. There are limits to that, but it also creates complexities to slow the eye down so when the eye looks at the painting it doesn’t just get it in one fell swoop but can crawl over the surface.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Like how Dickinson’s dash slows down the process of reading to allow us to take in more information and not get her short lines or even the whole poem in one fell swoop. Which is like Pink Trance Notebooks.
KOESTENBAUM: Oh my god, yes. That’s the whole thing. I’m trying to think of an analogy between what I was doing in the Pink Trance Notebooks and the way I’m describing painterly process. The only connection is the philosophy of really allowing yourself to make a mess in the first stage because then when you impose a second layer of thought over it there will be some things for you to bump against that will be more interesting than the things you would have intended.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That sounds like letting yourself be amateurish, which I know you’ve said you aim for when writing. Was that the case in Notes on Glaze? What was it like to be working off of those images?
KOESTENBAUM: Believe it or not—I act like I’m so into parataxis and free flowing fantasy—I was trying to make compositional unity, trying to make it hold together, trying to make the ending feel like an ending, trying to figure out a relation to the paragraph, trying to create tension. There were two stages. I would write a few paragraphs for each image I was sent, say four, and I would then choose which paragraph I wanted to continue with. I was trying to cultivate the experience of falling in love with one of them enough, or getting enough transference toward it. So I would do one version of it and if it was not sufficient I would choose another image and do that one. Then I would go back and dig in more. The revision was just endlessly going over and trying to particularize and differentiate. To sharpen the diction. So there was a lot of courtship involved with me and the image. They were really hard to write and came about very, very slowly. They took so much more revision then I ever intended.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Did that have anything to do with thinking of the ethics surrounding writing about anonymous subjects?
KOESTENBAUM: What’s weird is I thought about that mostly when it was becoming a book. When I did them one by one I felt less responsibility partly because I was so aware that Sina [Najafi] had just sent me the image, it was his property in some way. He wasn’t telling me who the figures were and that was the game we were playing so I couldn’t ask. I played along with the game and loved the game and it gave me my insouciant freedom. But when it was a book and it looked like I had chosen those images in some way (my name is on it, they’re my images) I began to notice levels of discomfort or duress in them and I felt more—call it guilty—more implicated, and my playfulness began to seem a kind of trampling on their agency, potentially.
I chose pictures that, to some extent, I could eroticize. There were plenty of pictures that I was sent that made me uncomfortable in a different, more direct way and I felt that to write about them would be a little cruel. If I were to do it all over again, I think there are one or two that I would revise and soften. But I always feel guilty about what I write, I think most of us do. For various real-world reasons. And so when it comes to publication I do reach a decision of resigning myself to my limitations, which involves resigning myself, to a certain extent, to my blindness. My moral blindness. Hoping that in balance there are other virtues in the way I see things and have said things.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And what about resigning yourself to the reader’s vision and trusting your reader to not cast aspersions?
KOESTENBAUM: I can’t. I have felt those aspersions too viscerally. But I enjoy the fact that in writing I can escape the scene of the crime and that I can choose the remoteness of a further writing project. And that to some extent I’ve chosen a style in a way of working that limits my readership in a way that makes me less vulnerable.
I rarely write for The New York Times Book Review but I reviewed Adrienne Rich’s poems and in that case I felt so daunted by the assignment because I thought, It’s such a public venue, she is such an important writer, it’s her life’s work. I cannot blow this. I have to do justice to the fullness of my feeling for her work and to its historical importance while also writing something lucid enough to be accepted in The New York Times. And I remember the amount of work I put into it as a result of my internalization of the gravity of the assignment. Turning each sentence over and over again. It’s really exhausting for an impatient person like myself. It sounds like there’s a lot of self-congratulation implicit in this kind of a “I revise so much” thing, but for me it is the corollary or consequence to having such a playful, amateurish aesthetic.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In Notes on Glaze you write that “an equivocal response to the debate over whether poetic writing makes any difference slowly declares itself.” Do you have any unequivocal beliefs about that right now?
KOESTENBAUM: Yea, I think I do. Writing permits the survival of the writer. And that’s a thing that happens. And it permits the survival of the conscience and the clarity of the soul and mind of the writer. Another thing that happens from writing is that words get thought about more and appreciated more, and in terms of the overall distribution of human energy some of that energy is going toward contemplation and consideration. And towards silence.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Which is a part of survival. It’s an exhalation of sorts, a moment of operating in the gaze, a moment of rapt inaction.
KOESTENBAUM: Yes. And given how many bad things happen, wouldn’t it be better if things didn’t happen? Poetry making nothing happen is the thing it makes happen. It prevents the violence of much of what constitutes “happening,” which is destruction. Permitting a reader an affect of conscientious objec-
tion, abjection, conscientious abstention through reading and then through more thoughtful actions.