A Conversation with Wayne Koestenbaum

Like an impossible lovechild from a late-night, drunken three-way between Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag, writer Wayne Koestenbaum inherited all their stylistic wonder and laser-beam smarts, but with the added point-blank jolt of sex. Celebrated for his searching work on opera (The Queen’s Throat), Andy Warhol (Andy Warhol), and on the politics and pleasures of iconicity (Jackie Under My Skin), Koestenbaum should be just as admired for his poetry (I recommend Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, The Milk of Inquiry, and Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films) and fiction (Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes and the forthcoming Hotel Theory).

Koestenbaum safeguards the belletristic tradition of the essay; he provides it with diplomatic immunity to travel to zones from which too many would bar it — theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis. Liberation is his siren call.

Bruce Hainley: I’d like to begin this sitting on a bench at the intersection of poetry and politics. The title of your most recent book, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, recalls an early essay of yours, which when first published was, I seem to remember, called “The Aryan Boy Who Pissed on My Father’s Head.” I’m interested in the way your writing continuously pulls toward porn while retaining all its stern, Sontagian glamour and purpose. Where do you situate the porn-poem, or poem-porn, given the precedents of Shelley’s “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”?

Wayne Koestenbaum: I’m ready to talk politics and poetry and everything else under the sun. I got splinters on my butt-cheeks from sitting so long on this bench. And then the splinters got infected. I was worried I’d have to amputate flesh gobbets. But then the Valium kicked in, with its little-studied antibiotic properties. So I’m raring to go, ass in gear. The porn-poem: to write a poem is pornographic, in the senses of wasteful, useless, awful, ignored, debased, hurdy-gurdy, repetitive, regressive, navel-gazing, ass-licking, time-killing, boring, ludicrous, transcendent, dilated. I’ve been reading mischievous L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E practitioner Charles Bernstein lately (he’s against National Poetry Month, thinks it’s bad for poetry). Also Slovenian writer Tomaz Salamun, also Austrian pathbreaker Ingeborg Bachmann. I’m feeling entranced, once again, by the possibilities of language that ignores the supervisor. It’s my regular May/June fever, the high of rediscovering poetry’s rankness, naughtiness. And, for me, these days, naughtiness exists in being minimal. Some of the most exciting pieces at the MoMA, New York, on a recent visit were by Walter De Maria and Ellsworth Kelly, nice old-fashioned staunch minimalists. Looking at them, I think I “got” — perhaps for the first time — what a thoroughly anal pleasure, like gin, minimalism can be, so spiked with content in its refusals and excisions, its “Why bother?” So “up there,” as Andy would say. Like a good old-fashioned hit of poppers. Like Warhol’s goodbye to art. Like rambunctious poet Ed Smith. Or Sturtevant. The porn-poem is there, where Smith meets Sturtevant. Poetry is politics on poppers?

BH: A friend wondered if you considered putting Jewballs on your list of bestsellers? Or is that a flick that remains to be greenlit?

WK: I wonder if I’ll ever buy a digital movie camera and start making porn, as I’ve always promised myself. As for Jewballs: we’re still looking for funding. One possible backer thought the title referred to an esoteric variety of highballs.

BH: I was intrigued to hear your new aim is to be charmless. I found that breathtaking, a reveille. Art depends on finding new ways to be artless. To ignore the supervisor: does this equal embracing the charmless? Does the charmless have exemplars but no supervisors? Is it akin to Barthes’s “neutral,” the elusive, beige topic of one of his last seminars? I’m in a summer funk, the psychic equivalent of “June gloom,” I guess, not utterly unpleasant — the jacarandas bloom — but not simple, not simply.

WK: Ah, summer funk. I’m feeling it, too — though the peonies, globular and rain-damp and pendulous (actually, fallen) in the backyard (“the” backyard), push me a few inches closer to ebullience. Today I’ve been reading Ingeborg Bachmann very slowly and in German (with utter reliance on the en face English). Her version of our “l’heure bleue” is “die blaue Stunde”: is your funk blue (blau, bleu), or is it colorless, greige? Funk, in its blankness, its charmlessness (isn’t funk a state of being temporarily unable to be charmed by the world?), belongs to the fiefdom of text, or at least of a charmless, neutral, artless writing. Yes, Bruce, let’s set sail, the two of us, in our drunken boat, for charmlessness, for what Bachmann calls “toter Hafen” (“dead harbor”). Her early work was intensely lauded — she won gobs of prizes for her first two books of poetry. But then, at least officially, she stopped writing poetry, turned exclusively to prose. That swerve, that turn away, has something to do with a refusal to continue being charming, or else an acknowledgment that she was never very charming to begin with! I’m trying to think productively, and ecstatically, about being in a funk, since we both seem to be in one, and since so many of our shared reading pleasures (from Maurice Blanchot to Elizabeth Bishop, from James Schuyler to Jean-Jacques Schuhl) deal with turgid moods. I think, therefore I can’t move. I think, therefore I can’t write. I can’t write, therefore I write.

BH: Injection! — as Liz demands in Boom!, Josephy Losey’s Sardinian masterpiece. I wonder if a little bit of scorpion venom might recalibrate our moods? I see from an article in the paper that Rufus Wainwright will be, um, redoing Judy’s famous (infamous?) Carnegie Hall performance this week. According to the article’s writer and its subject, he’s too young to have a camp relation to Judy’s song. I’m interested in camp’s toxicity — its shame leaves residues no soap or ceremony can lustrate. I admire Rufus Wainwright, I admire his earnest trebling, but I would never confuse it with trial, the life, her own, that Judy sang. But why wouldn’t Rufus redo Liza with A “Z,” something in sync with his age and something that would, or someone who would, however rightly or wrongly, possibly, potentially, put him in touch with failure’s freefalls and the risk of camp’s radioactivity? I couldn’t believe that Wainwright invoked 9/11 to explain how he first came to listen to and appreciate the tonic garland of Judy’s Carnegie intervention. I don’t care if it’s true — as you state: “in this artifice that I call law” — but I do care that he doesn’t have the chic to say that he was raised on Judy and/or that he was just coming up for air from a three-day crystal-meth sex bender (who’s to say getting wasted-booze, orgies, pills — wouldn’t be a valiant way to pay homage to Judy?) and when he raised his head from the toilet the sound of Judy singing to Harold Arlen played in the background of the dive he woke up in.

WK: Confession: I’ve never heard Rufus W sing. Which means, I haven’t cared to cross the street. From afar, I groove on his “son” vibe — son to greater, other stars, a Liza frequency. Too young to have a camp relationship to Judy? That’s like saying, too young to understand how to look properly at a Cézanne. It’s called, do your homework. It’s called, Connoisseurship 101: how to recognize the watermark on the backside of a Dürer. Every time I listen again to Judy at Carnegie Hall, I take more and more seriously her vocal power as, what she calls it in one of her interstitial monologues, “work.” “When I work,” she says, “I get very warm.” She pronounces “warm” like the first syllable of “wombat.”

BH: Last night, I read, in the debut issue of Soft Targets, a small section of your forthcoming book (novel-cum-philosophical intervention?), Hotel Theory. Thrilling! I used to consider myself way too stupid for theory, one of the retarded children Judy helps Burt Lancaster nurse in one of her last films — directed by John Cassavetes (think of the theory, the acting lessons, the METHOD Gena Rowlands learned on set watching Judy tutor her husband) — until, with the salubrious, remedial night schooling of Avital Ronell and Lydia Davis, I figured out that theory, at its best, yearns for stupor, channels stupidity, breaks knowledge down into non-knowledge, encourages drugged states, liquored relapse, reserving hotel-room — like interstice and aporia for dreaming about the real and the language it participates in. As much as you are furbishing theories of hotel existence, aren’t you also drawn to “back” an ellipsian hotel called Theory, the Connaught as well as the Hacienda Hot Spring Inn that Theory, too often used as prison or corporate headquarters, has-since Joseph Cornell and Jean Rhys, since Warhol-long been? I mean, didn’t Socrates hold forth in the equivalent of the Hollywood Spa, letting the door to his day-rented special room open for those who were interested? I screened Kuchar films today in class. His theory is called Hold Me While I’m Naked.

WK: I’m glad you understand that Hotel Theory is not a theory of hotels, but a hotel named Theory, ie, a place where certainty falls apart, or where stupor gets an airing. Yes, Warhol and Rhys and Cornell, and a few thousand other gurus, have spent years in thinking’s equivalent to Socrates’s Hollywood Spa. I’m still crawling through Ingeborg Bachmann as part of my Stupidity Project, ongoing, lifelong. Not so much to think myself “smart” because I’m reading German poetry, but to know myself “stupid” because I can’t read it, can’t understand it, can just grasp at the nouns. I can only cope with the nouns, which are profoundly — in any language, but especially in German — oases of the non-interstitial. Something that I hope Hotel Theory does is put the noun (and the nonce, and the ponce) back in theory, or at least dumb down theory, return it to muteness. Hold Me While I’m Naked is a terrific title, and demonstrates an entire poetics of the title. Aren’t certain artists and writers and thinkers mostly located in their titles? Or, if not mostly, at least most intensely? Because the title is the most exhibitionistic (pornographic) part of a work, and it’s often been a place of parsimony (Poems, by John Keats). Parsimony has a cruel charm, but I prefer, usually, the overflowing and messy, hence my admiration for Hold Me While I’m Naked. I finished watching Ozu’s Late Spring last night. His films are difficult to separate. Here are some of his most famous films: Early Spring (1956); Early Summer (1951); Late Autumn (1960); Late Spring (1949). He’s working the terrain of the parsimonious title. The weirdly doppelgangerish, non-referential, matte title. As if he were titling every one of his films The Neutral. There’s something Robert Ryman-esque about his insistence that early or late seasonality means so much. Frank O’Hara was born on June 27, 1926. Ingeborg Bachmann was born on June 25, 1926. Two days apart. History was busy, making poetry happen. And, incidentally, Anna Moffo, soprano, shimmering muse, was born on June 27, 1932 (or, some accounts say, 1935). Do these facts matter? I think they do. Or else we make them matter.

BH: Today, 8 June 2006, I saw someone I knew was a male movie star (B-list?) waiting at the grocery deli counter. Lean and worked-out, he was in a white T-shirt and jeans, kissing his girlfriend. She was trying for a Betty Page fifties look, and it almost worked. I couldn’t think of the minor hunk’s name, although I new it started with “G-.” The only Gname that would spring to mind was Gayatri Spivak. So I saw Gayatri Spivak and her girlfriend waiting for sandwiches. When I got home I remembered: Giovanni Ribisi. In Hollywood, he translated Of Grammatology and went on to great acclaim as a post colonial theorist (A-list, but of a desultory sort).

WK: Are you a fan of Eva Hesse?

BH: I like some of Eva Hesse — but what I like, I like a lot. I admire her works on paper — “covet” may be a more accurate term — perhaps even more than her more famous sculptures. She’s major on the level of mess-making and deployment of toxic materials as art. I guess some might say the toxic materials she used killed her or contributed to her early demise, but maybe she was interested in killing art. Thus, the toxicity of what she made art out of. She spoon-fed art poison pabulum.

WK: At noon today, I visited the Eva Hesse retrospective at the Jewish Museum. Yes, the works on paper — completely utilitarian, in the sense that beauty, when it’s paying attention, is useful in its uselessness. I love Hesse’s interest in Nothing, her tolerance for its muting incursions. She actively courts Nothing, she wants its gravitational torpor, its fecal drop. In photos of Hesse, I noted her Sontagesque chic. Did Eva and Susan meet, correspond, discuss the “body,” its maximalism or minimalism? Eva’s mother, Ruth, committed suicide in 1946. Which, obliquely, brings me back to Ingeborg B, who died, famously, from a fire, self-set, in her Rome apartment. In her poem, posthumously published, “That it was worse yesterday than today,” she has a one-on-one with a black beetle in her apartment. She says of the beetle (Kafka’s Gregor, implicitly): “To finally stomp on me / also occurs to him, and to me / in my madness, I being the same one who stares / at both me and the beetle, holding a novel / heavy enough to kill this beetle.” Again, by this time in her career, she’d ostensibly stopped writing poetry. Is a book of poetry heavy enough to kill this beetle? Perhaps not. That explains her flight to novel-writing. But I think she simultaneously believed in poetry’s aggressiveness. It seems polite to say that poetry is a force against destruction, but Bachmann (and you, and I) seem to concur that poetry, allied with the poetics of the foul mouth, battens on destructiveness: writes Bachmann, “Not wanting to remember anything, wanting to destroy / what memory is left, so strange, wanting to destroy.”