“It’s my duty as a poet to push my language and consciousness as far into the ‘forbidden’ as possible,” declares Wayne Koestenbaum in the following interview. A poet and writer of diverse talents, Koestenbaum’s poetry vibrantly illustrates this dictum. His strange and sensuous lyrics mine perversity, pleasure, queer desire, memory, the provisionality of daily life, and more.
Koestenbaum might be best known for the triumph of his book The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire, or his biographical fantasias on Andy Warhol or Jackie O. However, as the interview attests, he is one of the most original and innovative poets of his generation. ArtForum notes “his concern is always language as thinking as pleasure. Koestenbaum explores how bodies and words occupy time and space—which is why movie stars, music, photographs, and the various perfumes of the quotidian are his leitmotifs. His consideration of desire’s elusive nature creates a crucial esthetic, perhaps even an impossible one.”
As he discusses many of these issues and themes, Koestenbaum’s answers are as lyrically exciting, startlingly sexual, and eccentric as is his poetry. Sometimes he makes of his answers a kind of litany, like the one in which he riffs on the word “fag”: “I know that ‘fag’ is pejorative, but it speaks acres….fag is beauty, fag is the devalued treasure. Fag idiom is lilt and enthusiasm and innuendo.” He also describes the risks of using the term “gay sensibility,” which he describes as “a great tradition of dandies, collectors, fetishists, thieves.”
Flipping through the pages of his early books, Koestenbaum discusses frankly with the interviewer how his work has increasingly moved away from his “earlier idols, Proust, Barthes, and O’Hara” to figures like Gertrude Stein and Andy Warhol. In this way, the interview narrates the evolution of Koestenbaum’s style, one interested in fragmentation, the Orphic utterance, dream logic, the multi-form self, and a great host of Steinian tonal and linguistic concerns, perhaps best illustrated in his latest volume Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background. “I celebrate my fragmentation [as] a sexy, violated position,” he says.
One of the highlights of the interview occurs when Koestenbaum talks about what he sees as the very real connections between sex, the body and writing. In fact, sex and the body are everywhere in his poems, but never on facile terms. He explains, “[I]n my work I’ve consciously tried to be more innovative and less reductive about bodies; I’ve tried to think about how many cracks I can find in a single body.” For Koestenbaum, words like “invaginated” and “phallic narcissism” are key to understanding a poetry riddled with “holes” and hosted by “an ironic ‘I’ who is hanging out with body parts,” as he explains below.
According to Robert Boyers, “The poetry of Wayne Koestenbaum is a mask of confession, at once confiding and elusive, occasionally rueful but mostly ardent and playful.” David Baker argues Koestenbaum “is the most willing to exert the pressures of traditional formality, yet he is also likely to let the voice and experience of a poem grate against his own formal gestures, launching by turns into raw confession, roughhouse, and rage as well as into aria and art-speak.”
Koestenbaum is the author of over a dozen books. He published his first collection of poetry, Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems, in 1990, after being named co-winner of the 1989 Discovery/The Nation poetry contest. His books of poetry are Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background, Best Selling Jewish Porn Films, Model Homes, The Milk of Inquiry, and Rhapsodies of A Repeat Offender. The Queen’s Throat was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also written about queer issues in Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration and in Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics. He published a novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, and wrote the libretto for an opera, Jackie O. He’ also recently published a book-length essay entitled Humiliation and The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, his latest critical book, published this year.
Koestenbaum has received a Whiting Writer’s Award, among other accolades. He taught in Yale’s English Department from 1988 to 1996 and is currently a distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. He lives in New York City with his partner of thirty years, Steven Marchetti.
I spoke with him in July of 2010 at a café in Cambridge, Mass., during his visit to the city where he lived for seven years as a student and afterward in the 1970s and 1980. We followed up our talk with an email correspondence over the course of several months in 2011.
CH: As I was reading your latest book I had an epiphany about your poetry as a whole—that for you as a poet there’s a fundamental imaginative link between pleasure and perversity. Does such a link feed you, creatively and psychically?
WK: Perversity: I like to go the wrong way. In a poem, in a sentence, in a phrase, I like to send the words (however logically they seem to be behaving) toward a wrong destination. To pervert their normality. That is, the words (as words) appear to have a normal function; their normality—their mandate—is to signify. [But] I twist their signification, without destroying the word. Pushing a sentence in a wrong direction without altering its sweet grammatical composure amuses and titillates me.
CH: Maybe this is an example of that: “God is a ski bunny. / I must make clear my sexual availability,” from the new poem “Saturnalia”. The book contains many such moments, syntactically “simple” sentences but with utterly wild semantic meanings—meaning often linked to kinky and transgressive sex acts. Do these lines become little grammar lessons in perversity, showing how perverse grammar is as this ultimately ridiculous set of rules?
WK: I like your notion of “little grammar lessons in perversity.” I certainly love the posture of a teacher: that was [Gertrude] Stein’s posture, in her unclassifiable work. Meaning for Stein might have been up in the air, but tone never was; her tone was always resolutely pedagogic. And I guess I try to copy (or channel?) Stein’s tone, her no-nonsense, practical, simple elocution: “God is a ski bunny.” To me, the identity “ski bunny” is intrinsically funny and needs to be put into a poem. “God,” too, is a funny word. The word “is” and “ski” have much in common (an “i,” an “s”). Making God the subject of a sentence whose predicate is simply a ski bunny fills me with a sense of a deed well-done, a day well-spent. I get a Benjamin Franklin pleasure (the counting house of the affections) from writing a sentence like “God is a ski bunny.”
CH: Here’s another example of some of the things we’re talking about: “I fingerfuck a poet. / He turns into a novelist.” Some of the most striking moments in this new book work in this kind of bizarre dialectic—sometimes sexual, sometimes pop cultural or literary, sometimes personal, or all three as in this example. Does this speak to how poetry can so wonderfully fuck with binaries, with relationships?
WK: Yes to fingerfucking the dialectic! Or to using the dialectic as a method of fingerfucking the binary! I definitely love antithesis. I like to be logical in my writing, even though my mind is intrinsically anti-logical. And so I tame my associations—my free-fall of logorrhea?—by packing the mess into the tidy box of the antithesis or the litany. The antithesis and the litany are practical rhetorical methods of organizing lava.
CH: In the new poem “Faust’s Dog,” you write, “My butt, at its best, resembles Faust’s dog. / It has an affectionate relationship to condiments.” Such loony lines! For me, this poem is very much about the pleasure-perversity link, especially in discovering something isn’t what it seems (like the strange transforming dog in Goethe’s Faust?). Is this poem—and perhaps much of your recent work— about teaching the reader new ways of experiencing pleasure?
WK: The pleasure for me in the lines about Faust’s dog lies in the word “condiments.” The pleasure for me in those lines is the contrast between the monosyllabic behavior of the first line (which centers on one-syllable words: butt, best, Faust, dog), with the multi-syllabic gamesmanship of the line that follows (affectionate, relationship, condiments). The pleasure for me in Stein’s work is the contrast between monosyllabic words and polysyllabic words; and consciously or unconsciously I have tended to treat my words as objects whose size (or syllabic heft) matters, whether that size is tiny or large. The “new way of experiencing pleasure” is an old way: word-fetishism.
CH: In all your work you’ve never shied away from the delightfully crass, the low and the pornographic, but am I sensing even more willingness to go beyond? Case in point, two poems from the new book: “The Ass Festival” and “Urinals”—a poem that starts with cum dripping from an anus and a bizarre ode to the word ‘urinal’, respectively. And yet the speaker is so matter of fact in these poems!
WK: The matter-of-fact is my bread and butter. Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Gertrude Stein—three of my idols and stylistic models—were profoundly matter-of-fact in their relation to weirdness, sadness, desolation, pleasure, surfeit, comfort, yearning. Their tone was always frontal: the flash card. My tendency is to be baroque, and I’m always chaining that tendency—taming it. Matter-of-factness (tonal frontality, straightforwardness) tames excess, limits grandiosity and prevents (I hope!) bloating and gloating.
CH: The new book ends with “April in Venice,” an extended stream-of-conscious interior monologue. The speaker is a tourist at a café, taking in Venice and anything he sees, imagines or associates in a flood of images, references and ideas. Often the mind turns to language:
I own two pianos
but only one language,
and I don’t own it is
premise of this plodding
Language is alienated from the speaker, or the speaker alienated from language?
WK: Writing in Venice, I experienced a salutary alienation from my “own” language. This year, I’m taking French lessons—and the highlight of my current writing life is the experience each week of writing a short “histoire” for my French teacher: a prose composition, approximately 500 words, in French. If my writing will grow, will continue, I feel that its growth and continuation must take root in whatever process occurs in these French compositions—their matter-of-factness, their simplicity, their puerility, their honesty. Writing in French, I’m rediscovering the power and pleasure of language. My composition yesterday was about painting nude self-portraits: I’ve been painting (in acrylics, watercolors, gouaches) for nearly a year now, and this week I’ve been experimenting with nude self-portraits. I wrote a French composition yesterday about exactly how I mix the colors to make up flesh-tone: fluorescent pink and titanium white.
CH: I think there’s been a theme in my questions so far: extending “pleasure” from your earlier work into new proliferations in this latest work. To appropriate a term from queer theory, are we witnessing of celebration of poetic ‘polymorphous perversity’? (Say that three times fast!)
WK: Yes, yes, yes! As in the “fingerfucking” moment, above, I’m happy to send a line or a scene or a sentence or a stanza in a sexually perverse direction, not because I’m the most perverse citizen of the U.S., but because it’s my duty as a poet to push my language and consciousness as far into the “forbidden” as possible. William James wrote about fringes of consciousness, didn’t he? About the half-thought realms surrounding the conscious mind? Those half-thought realms are, to me, the treasure-chests of perverse fantasy. And I like to treat a poem (or a sentence) as a cruiser whose tropism is toward the thrill around the corner, the body in the ramble.
CH: I think that the journey your work goes on through your six books of poetry is a fascinating one. It begins in a place of autobiography and with a rich, ornate language, intricate form, careful rhymes in often-longish poems. The poems become shorter, more cutting, more elusive, more interested in dreams and the strangeness of language—and yet the poems never move away from the personal, or perhaps [the idea of] personality. I think that distinction—the personal and personality—is hugely important.
WK: I’ve always been drawn to logorrheic poetic practices; but I’ve also felt the lure of cutting, of abstention, of edges. More and more, I seek edges. Earlier, I avoided dreams, because they seemed too thoroughly my milieu, and it behooved me (or so I thought) to seek “reality.” And now I’m sick of reality, and I want my fantasies back. Lacan (I think!) defined the Real as that which remains invisible to us—that is, our fantasies.
CH: Your latest work, put next to your early work, is very different. But no matter what changes in the work’s style, tone and formal concerns, the poetry is “about” Wayne, Steve, family, the power or curse of memory, and one poet’s very specific tastes. Has part of your project been to map the possibilities of writing about the self, to understand all the ways a poem can be about the personal? Almost as if each book has asked the question, ‘How can I talk about the personal and personality in a different way?’ Does that resonate?
WK: It does. Just to do a quick narration to parallel your narration: certainly the first book—which actually came after many instantiations of my “first book” (including one collection, never published, titled Fifty Sonnets)—represented what seemed to me a final, relaxed, bruised arrival at autobiography and narration. I gave up many screens and devices, including artfulness, or the small, shaped poem, with short lines. For me, the discovery of syllabics and the prosaic was tantamount to discovering that I could be straightforwardly, embarrassingly autobiographical. And that discovery was very liberating. It seemed like an endpoint from which I would never budge. But then I got tired of authenticity; those poems came too readily from a locatable voice, and when I found that I was starting to fake that voice to make a poem, I became interested in different kinds of technical and tonal manipulation. But the fact remained that it was always still me writing the poem; and my wellspring of material—dreams, personal life, domestic life, dailiness, family, history, erotic imagination, the cultural Imaginaire in which I dwell—remains the same. Now I arrive with fatigue at those thematic founts: “Oh, I’ll let you in the poem after all; I can’t help it.”
In my new book, there’s a little poem called “At the Grave of Yvonne De Carlo.” In the old days I would have included details about Yvonne De Carlo [a film actress who is remembered today for her role as Lily Munster in The Munsters TV show]. As it is now, she barely appears in the poem. It’s more about fatigue, Steve; it’s about a penumbra of threshold moods…but Yvonne De Carlo is the locator. I have neither the energy nor the belief to delineate Yvonne De Carlo, the way I stepped into the voice of Bette Davis in “Star Vehicles” [a sequence of poems from Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender].
CH: I wonder if in some sense your poetry (the later books, specifically) feel like critiques of the idea of self, or how we write about the self. There are these weird movements from what seem like autobiography to what could be autobiography—but just isn’t. For example, you’re writing about Steve, but then in one poem he runs you over with a motorcycle. Or you’ll be talking about your mother, and suddenly she’ll give birth to twins [in a poem].
WK: The figures in my life and imagination have many identities. As in myth, everybody is a five-headed monster, everybody has nine lives, everybody has magical powers. Steve has been my boyfriend for thirty years, and since I’m a poet of the daily, he appears frequently. Steve has thirty identities. He shows up in my dreams, and ditto with my mom, who manifests everywhere, but in disguise. Is protean the easy word to apply to this slipperiness?
I’m not consciously critiquing self or identity when Steve runs me over with the motorcycle on “the boulevard of moon smut,” [from “Female Masculinity,” Best-selling Jewish Porn Films]. I’m tonally stepping back from earnestness or sincerity into idleness, indifference, vituperativeness. At least since 1994, when I became a disciple of Gertrude Stein, my work has consciously celebrated idleness and the stationary, sitting still, not caring. And I’ve allied myself with Andy Warhol, who represents a very different aesthetic principle than my earlier idols, Proust, Barthes, and O’Hara.
CH: Maybe you just answered my next question, which is about the idea of not taking oneself too seriously. I think there’s an element of that in your work. What does such a stance as a poet offer you? What does it risk? I suppose this might be connected to a sort of Steinian stance of openness to…well, anything.
WK: Part of this openness is characterological or temperamental. As Frank O’Hara says, in the statement at the back of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry:
…at times when I would rather be dead the thought that I could never write another poem has so far stopped me. … I don’t think of fame or posterity (as Keats so grandly and genuinely did), nor do I care about clarifying the experiences for anyone or bettering (other than accidentally) anyone’s state or so social relation.
And there’s his stance in “Personism”:
Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them.
I incorporate O’Hara’s attitudes: a near-Romantic high seriousness, an investment in my own pathos. I don’t yearn for high intellectual seriousness. Sometimes I think (perhaps wrongly) that poets who come up through the MFA route have a falsely idealized intellectuality, because they think that intellectuality is the magic serum that they’re going to inject into poetry to lift it above the folderol of an earlier generation. Sometimes I don’t even consider myself a poet; I’m better known as a prose writer or an art critic. When I write a poem, I don’t try to address a major ideological issue or question the veracity of the lyric. I don’t feel burdened by the major obligations that some poets these days bring to the table when they write. Let me put it bluntly: I’m fed up with Adorno; I’ve had plenty of Adorno; if I want Adorno, I know where he is; if Adorno appears in my poems it’s because I want to fuck his ass and it’s not because I think it’s really, really important to educate the reader about Adorno; if Adorno appears in my poem, it’s because he’s making a cameo appearance in drag. I think it’s great to read Adorno (I love Minima Moralia…I almost bought a German copy of it at Lame Duck Books the other day), but I do not feel it’s my job to educate the reader about Adorno. My stance is an aesthete’s, like Frank O’Hara’s. He includes Poulenc and other recherché figures in his poems, but only because they are the furniture in his mind; he’s not making a bid for poetry as a new form of critical theory or historiography.
CH: On the way here today the key word I kept coming back to that clarified your work for me was correspondence—
CH: And it’s not juxtaposition, or not simply juxtaposition (that’s a different idea). Sometimes I’ll read your work, and there will be a bunch of…furniture in a poem, and then there are these correspondences that are subtle but are a huge part of the poem.
WK: I love “correspondence.” Correspondence and juxtaposition mean a great deal to me. I’ll pick two names that magically belong together, though no one (to my knowledge) has ever tried to ally them: Adorno and Gina Lollobrigida. It’s not as if Gina Lollobrigida and Adorno have much to do with each other, but why not use them the way a surrealist would, to build connections? And Adorno is so much more fun when we put him into bed with Gina Lollobrigida. One can then play around with Adorno’s Italian-ness, and we can start playing around with Europe in the 1950s, with film, with libertarianism, with scandal, with the off-topic. For me, just sounding those two words, those two names (Adorno, Lollobrigida) brings up a giddy field of possibilities; the juxtaposition sets my imagination racing. The juxtaposition is not a dissertation or an argument. The juxtaposition is a yard sale or a used bookstore. “Oh my god, here’s a first edition of [Susan Sontag’s] Against Interpretation, and here’s a copy of Look magazine with Sandra Dee on the cover. And they came out the same year.”
One of my new poems, “Return of the Noun,” feels like a position paper on the juiciness of juxtaposed names. The poem is filled with names (Proust, Anna Freud, Lorna Luft); in this poem—without apology, and with considerable pushiness—I lay out or stage the comeback of the noun. I write: “the return of the noun in her figure-fitting automobile.” I imagined a busty Miss Arkansas riding in a convertible. Miss Noun.
CH: Speaking of naming things. Your poems are full of cultural references in particular. I feel like in some sense gay writers handle cultural references in ways that are maybe more…well, juicy. The metaphor I come to is one where we are studding the poems with these referential gems. Do you see that as a gay sensibility?
WK: Yes and no. There’s a great tradition of bejeweled bricolage that includes Joseph Cornell, Jack Smith, the surrealists, Frank O’Hara, and even in his way Walter Benjamin. This tradition includes the dandy, the collector, the fetishist. This tradition reveals a big gay imprint; in this milieu, trash and value intersect. This realm has often been called “camp,” but “camp” is an overly casual shorthand for such a complex system of jewels, of cataloguing. In this world, there’s an attention to each item’s treasureability—but also a disdain for settling down for life with any single jewel. There’s a wish to have as many of them as possible running through one’s imaginative bloodstream—
CH: —and to really draw on the textures of each one. Juiciness is a really good term here.
WK: Juiciness and the encyclopedic intersect with so-called promiscuity. I’ll invoke now a whole range of identities and practices, including the slut, the frequenter of rent boys—…. We’re tiptoeing around something important. You call it the “gay sensibility,” and I’m blurring it by calling it a great tradition of dandies, collectors, fetishists, thieves. (Basically anyone in the twentieth century that interests me belongs to this canon.) I’m hesitant to call it a gay sensibility, hesitant to call it camp, because I don’t want to fence it in. If we call it a gay sensibility, then people who don’t like a gay sensibility will want to persecute and place off-limits all of our keepsakes. If we call it camp, other people will use that term to dismiss the whole kingdom. Some observers, of course, would proudly consider Judy Garland and Joan Crawford elements of a gay sensibility, of camp. But other observers would use the term “camp” (or the notion of a “gay sensibility”) to dismiss Judy Garland and Joan Crawford, and would not understand that Adorno and Gershom Scholem also belong with Judy Garland. I want to widen the field of treasure.
CH: This all brings to mind one of my favorite parts of The Milk of Inquiry, where you write [in “Four Lemon Drops”], “I’m part of a fag generation // I respect fag poesy, once dismissed it / something faggy about poesy, period / lyrical voice recalling / itself at end of each line is faggy impetus”; and “I can only do so much to help the English language // in deployment of fag idiom I am not alone / in seeking continuity between mystical expansion and fag idiom / even Dickinson in her own way used fag idiom.” The word “fag” becomes so silly in its repetition, and yet I really want to know what a “fag idiom” can be. This seems like an important moment in your work. Can you talk about your relationship to the word “fag” and what writing “faggy” might mean?
WK: I wrote an essay (for the 2004 Whitney Biennial catalogue) called “Fag Limbo”; if the word “fag” weren’t career suicide, I’d call my next book of essays Fag Limbo. I know that “fag” is pejorative, but it speaks acres; fag is paisley, fag is pink, fag is Frank O’Hara, fag is Andy Warhol, fag is beauty, fag is the devalued treasure. Fag idiom is lilt and enthusiasm and innuendo. Fag idiom is George Platt Lynes and Ryan Trecartin. My writing is “tight,” I hope (Eileen Myles called it “tight” in her blurb for Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films); but I write tightly in order to highlight (by chiaroscuro) the sinuosities of my idiom, its drift and sway. If I let my sinuosity do its thing without limits, I’d sound utterly purple. Perhaps I sound more purple with my pert incisions and excisions, my fetishistic cuts, my asterisks and punctums and interruptions.
CH: There are lots of personal details, erotic disclosures in the first two books, but something happens with the third book [of poetry], The Milk of Inquiry. There’s this shift, a shift perhaps not away from autobiography, but maybe from disclosure? The details are still there, but—
WK:—[Koestenbaum flips through a copy of The Milk of Inquiry Hennessy has brought to the interview.] The poems in “Four Lemon Drops” are autobiographical: “Mom do you mind if I include you in the poems / she wouldn’t mind, secretly she might / it would be Mom-like to mind / and not tell me.” Or “I have few short friends / John, dead now, was my short friend.” That’s direct and prosaic. Here’s a poem that one could basically call a fantasy about fucking my father. [Poem 48 from “Metamorphoses (Masked Ball)”]:
Vista shaved between raised splayed legs—
seen from behind—my keeper beckons—
I stagger past the humming television’s
barbered—so we can rebegin—
he says I hate your kind—strop edge descends—
reiterates—and then the credits roll—
Majolica paths lead down the wishing well—
I drop my bucket through
the whimpering gap—Pavlovian
place without decoration—
on the sofa, relatives lie propped up—
nude—smiling—I behold innards unwrap—
This poem is somewhat mysterious, but it is “simply” (or complexly) a series of fantasies about rear penetration that is also vaginal (because it’s a ‘re-beginning’). I know that when I wrote that poem I was in a trance, a fantasy, going deep into a paternal anal cavity…. [But] it wasn’t about my actual father. I couldn’t tell a little story about my father at that point; the adventure was archetypal and dream-like but was still a vivid, physical experience. I remember writing that poem and thinking, ‘Whoa, either I’m going crazy, or I’m a shaman, or I’m part of some ecstatic gay movement that I’m going to inaugurate right now.’ I felt as if I were diving into the wreck, but the drowned vessel was my father’s anus.
CH: I wonder if gay men, lesbians (and straight women as well) have done something really important in terms of making American poetry be aware that a limit is a bad thing.
WK: I agree absolutely. Anne Sexton writing about menstruation. Eileen Myles writing about pussy and using that word. The scene in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry that meant the most to me is the bit in “Kaddish” when he describes seeing his mother’s nude body. Also in the poem “To Aunt Rose” he talks about being naked in his aunt’s presence. Ginsberg gives us semi-incestuous scenes of nudity—mother, aunt, himself. That exhibitionism totally turned me on and seemed the path to follow. And I also I think the scene in The Milk of Inquiry about the father’s anus—the movement toward a more abstract way of dealing with sex —came from reading Dennis Cooper. I was impressed that for Cooper the sexual quest became allegorical and disembodied, that it became a death-drive into the crack. So in my work I’ve consciously tried to be more innovative and less reductive about bodies; I’ve tried to think about how many cracks I can find in a single body. Even something like these lines: “Charity informed the butt, / made it a locus”; “I decided, in fantasy, to be kind to his legs”; “V’s stomach crossed the hotel room.”; and “Looseness // suited the bush: / it had all day, all year. // No one—no girl—would ever discover / his pudge dusk stomach, // portions abstracted / from other contexts.” [from “History of Boys”]. Here I make a deliberate effort, successful or not, to render the topography of the body as more abstract. It’s a turn away from verisimilitude to approach a truth that I learned from reading writers like Dennis Cooper: when you plunge into the body, the body has many chambers, and the parts are not subordinated to personality or identity; there’s just the dick, the crack, or hair, whatever, it’s all abstract.
CH: I want to come back to “Metamorphoses (Masked Ball),” with its individual poems all titled with personae names. Did the persona quality of those poems give you access to—
WK: —I chose the most wounded and torn-apart of the mythological personae: Orpheus, Medusa, the dismembered ones, the tongue-less ones, and so that identification gave me a feeling of being invaginated or in pieces. I wanted to be Orpheus. If the poems are more difficult in “Metamorphoses (Masked Ball),” the opacity comes from wanting to dig into anatomy more deeply. I temporarily gave up the persona of ‘Wayne’. The same divestment happened in Best-selling Jewish Porn Films. ‘Wayne’ is in some of them, but in others ‘Wayne’ isn’t there. Instead, we find a kind of ironic “I” who is hanging out with body parts.
CH: When you write poems about art (music, I think, especially), the poems sometimes make connections between body and performance. (This is discussed most powerfully in the prose of The Queen’s Throat). Can you talk about why it’s important for you to understand art as embodied through or in the artist—art as being experienced or reflected in the body?
WK: I’m tempted to answer that by making a quick inventory of what writing poetry feels like to the body. Poetry is connected to my fingers; I’m a pianist. I have a compulsive longing to play around with the two keyboards—the typewriter keyboard and the piano keyboard. Both are sensuously alive.
I still play piano, as the poems indicate. But I didn’t play for twelve years, and I didn’t play when I was writing Ode to Anna Moffo. I bought a piano after I wrote The Queen’s Throat in ’92. The sequence “Piano Life” (in Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender) describes my re-encounter with the piano. When I don’t play piano, I get a funny feeling in my fingers. It’s like blue balls. I get blue balls in my fingers! [both laugh].
I’ve developed a typewriter fetish. I like to write poems on the typewriter; I like the slowness and the deliberateness of that process. A line break involves the pleasure of manually returning to the left, which you don’t do in prose—except when you type prose on a typewriter, in which case you have the delight of the manual return. On a computer you don’t make a manual return. The physical satisfaction for poetry is to experience a limit at the end of the line, and to make a manual return. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (in her essay “A Poem Is Being Written”) refers to line breaks and enjambments as forms of spanking. I support that analogy; the process of poetry allows a writer (or reader) to master the spanking, the pleasure of the recoil. I also love the left edge of the paper’s margin.
CH: The connections between sex and poetry, sex and writing, are abundant in your work, both prose and poetry. You even compare turning a poem to turning a trick. Let’s keep exploring this connection between the act of writing and the act of sex? Do you see it as a very real, embodied connection?
WK: Absolutely. Here are the things it involves. The feeling of wanting to have an orgasm, either when you’re having sex or when you’re aroused, and the feeling of wanting that…—[pauses] it’s a very complicated, philosophical state. It’s one of the most intense sorts of duration that a human can feel. I write about it explicitly in the introduction to my Andy Warhol biography. I talk about what time felt like while I was watching Warhol’s films. His films are about a sensation of time or duration when you are waiting for sex or waiting to find the right guy—a slow drip of turn-on that lasts forever without release. A somatic state of yearning. Rilke’s Duino Elegies, which are the height of the poetic sublime, take place entirely in that pre-cum state. It’s all about engorgement. With engorgement comes delusion. When you’re in that state, you’re not making good decisions [both laugh]. Frank O’Hara’s poem “You Are Gorgeous and I’m Coming” also deals with that sense of time accelerating backwards and forwards. Writing a poem, there’s no release in sight.
I am embarrassingly phallic. I felt ashamed of this tendency for a long time. The phallic seemed like a reprehensible category. But now I have come to a more complex understanding of my own version of phallicism or whatever is phallic in me: eagerness, exhibitionism, jutting out; a visible proclamation of what I want; a tendency toward undeniable and sensational announcements; an inability to hide. And if there’s something bold or “out there” in my work, I hope it’s not akin to an imperialist or a Conquistador, but rather to a three-year old running around naked with a hard-on: an innocent, phallic narcissism.
Holes are important to me symbolically in my writing. I have a poem in The Milk of Inquiry called “Holes”; holes come up frequently in the “Metamorphoses (Masked Ball).” I could lead you on a tour of holes in my work—not just the anus, which is the big male hole. My work is populated by the sensations of being a gladly invaginated male. I like the word “invaginated,” a deconstructive, problematic word. [Koestenbaum flips through Ode to Anna Moffo, which Hennessy has brought.] In “Shéhérazade” I say:
…To be torn apart
is my ambition,
not, like Acteaon, limb
by limb, but in a prolonged waltz
of changes, every measure a new
hiding-place opening up
That says it quite explicitly. “To be torn apart / is my ambition.” I identify with Orpheus. I celebrate my fragmentation [as] a sexy, violated position. And there’s an anal aspect. I am being fucked, and it kind of hurts but it’s ecstatic. Look at how the poem begins: “One word, ‘nacreous,’ coils in me like a conch, a minaret, / or a question always in the process of being posed.” “Coils in me.” And it’s there later, too, when I write: “What I hear enters me, / Ravel scored it so / the tremor in voir / makes me clench my rectum.”
CH: Yes! [Hennessy takes the book]. And at the end of “Shéhérazade” are the lines:
…I enter the boy
I used to be, who lies in my bed,
naked, as if I’ve purchased him
from an Arabian sorceress
who sews the body to its sorrow, invisibly.
Wow. Love those lines.
WK: The image of self-penetration is very important to me. “I enter the boy / I used to be…/ naked”: all the different selves (past, present, future) exist simultaneously, creating a masked ball of multiples. The possibilities for sex are scarily infinite. It’s like the Marquis de Sade, who imagines a mythological, perverted sequence of sex acts, a round-robin of buggeries. A Sadean confluence of positions and attitudes throb in me imaginatively when I write, not as physical sensations but as yearnings. Also, what I out-datedly refer to as “horniness” (the state of restless cruising, of restlessly wanting to find someone) is simply a condition of rapt interest and attentive pursuit; being interested in life means being a little horny [both laugh].” So, I’m writing in my notebook, on the train, and I think: “Wow, that guy over there is really really cute. Maybe he’ll come sit over here.”
CH: Does form have a relationship to sex, sexiness? In Model Homes, for example, you write that ottava rima gives you “a striptease liberty.”
WK: I think we’re back to phallic narcissism. An aspect of showing off is built into ottava rima; but by writing in those stanzas, I’m cross-dressing as Byron or antically re-inhabiting a dead body, Byron’s dead body, and playing around with the Byronic costume. That gave me an exhibitionistic pleasure that then triggered more exhibitionism of content. I use the word “exhibitionism” without pejorative taint. Writing is showing off.
CH: You said once, “Poetry is pornography.”
WK: I am demonstrating to you how tasty I think words are. I’m having sex with words in front of you. I’m playing around with them. I’m getting off. I’m trying to titillate you. There’s this magical substance, language, that I’m laying out for you. Then you’re going to fondle it. Roland Barthes said all of this, and more, in The Pleasure of the Text, but it’s true. He wasn’t making it up.
CH: You talk a lot about the erotic as a concept in your poems. I’m thinking of “Erotic Collectibles” [Rhapsodies… ] and how time puts its pressure on the poem, how time is so crucial, how aware we must be of speaking from the future where AIDS is always in our past and there’s nothing we can do about it. Not so much the experience of “duration” but …am I talking about nostalgia, maybe, and its…obverse? The poem made me wonder if gay men can ever write about erotic memory without, somewhere in our brain, the specter of the epidemic looming. Let me just cite some lines [from “Erotic Collectibles”]: “It was January 1980—/ the world was stealthily / moving into epidemic,// and I was innocently / writing about the separation / between ‘word’ and ‘emotion’/ in the early poetry // of Ezra Pound, a thesis due the Ides of March.”; and “The air was poetry;/ I hadn’t yet written / a single line of verse”; “he expressed wild wonder / at all the sex ahead of me: / the riptides, the lagoons, / the violations”—
WK: —“Erotic Collectibles” narrates the years of sexual awakening around the arrival of AIDS. History changed for me in 1981, and that was also when I became gay and started writing poems. There isn’t one thing I can say about that confluence. It’s complicated, like the sky. The place where sex and identity and death and time come together for me has always been marked by AIDS.
When I was writing Ode to Anna Moffo and Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, I hadn’t been tested. I didn’t know, when I was writing those books, that I was HIV-negative.
CH: Both of the final two poems in Ode to Anna Moffo are elegies, “The Answer Is In The Garden” and “Dog Bite.” But they both begin in some other place only to end in elegy, with stops in memory along the way. That was an interesting strategy. How did you come to take these routes as ways to elegize lost friends? Did you consider more direct elegies?
WK: You can begin a poem anywhere and end with a death, because there’s always a death in the wings. The way I used to write a poem was to start with one thing and slowly move until I reached a point where I felt I had reached a depth that satisfied me—and that endpoint was usually death. I remember what that process felt like: I would sit down and say [gestures toward Hennessy’s case], “Let me write a poem about your black valise,” and then I would probably end with Walter Benjamin and his briefcase that was never found after his death. I wouldn’t consciously start knowing that terminus, but I would find it—“it” meaning Walter Benjamin’s briefcase—and its imminence would excite me.
CH: Somehow we’ve made our way backwards in time from the new work to the early poems. If the new poem “Return of the Noun” is a position paper, I wonder if the early poem “Rhapsody” is a manifesto? It seems to argue its own poetics: “I don’t want to explain an emotion, I want to paint a verbal ring / */ of posies or forget-me-nots around it, and let the circle / * / imply the sentiment, as a blouse in a closet suggests a body—”; and “A poem should be the letter you dare not write or send.” Did its form influence this?
WK: I wrote the poem by putting regular eight-and-a-half by eleven inch typing paper into my IBM Selectric horizontally rather than vertically. This sounds like a minor fact, but for me it was major: putting the paper into the typewriter sideways gave me a much longer field for the line—and, literally, I typed at a furious pace, in the first draft of the poem. I typed as fast as I could, racing to the edge of the page. I tried to type at the speed of thought. The speed of my transcription-of-thought corresponded to the freedoms I was espousing in the poem—the freedom, most of all, to discard the “self” I’d been posing as, for years, and to experiment with a larger, more open-ended sense of becoming. Each line felt like the destruction of my former self, and the creation (through play) of some new organic impetus of movement. (I’m probably reinventing the wheel, and sounding like Kerouac/Ginsberg/Lawrence. Who cares? The experience felt incredible.)
CH: I want to end by talking about a kind of exemplary moment in your first book, a moment that contains many of your work’s major themes (form, memory, language, the erotic, and a certain strangeness). But it’s also a moment that’s so different from the work I cited when we began talking:
….I saw the buttocks
Of Ben Butler at Cub Scouts, and fancied his name was “Butter.”
Or did I rename him because I felt elegiac,
And knew the body’s fate was to be eaten? In the gutter
We raced our paper sailboats to their desolation.
Navigation was the mystery, not copulation.
We’ve talked a lot about the promiscuous, enlarging the field, phallic narcissism, even Max Grand, but we’ve only briefly talked about your use of form, and things as foundational as rhyme, so tightly controlled in these lines. For a poet whose writing has become so different from that first book, I’m profoundly curious about how you now see rhyme, form?
WK: Ah, rhyme! Rhyming is ecstatic, when I feel like doing it. When I don’t want to rhyme, rhyming seems pointlessly incarcerating. Rhyming, for me, has been a way of forgetting where I stand—of forgetting what I planned and intended—and letting another level of work (of association, of play) take precedence over the dismal labor of intentional thought. When I rhyme, I do so because it feels like a magical resource—a way to abandon my attachment to sentinels and rule-makers. I know that rhyming involves strict rules—that rhyming is itself a rule. And yet, when I rhyme, I feel deeply (and joyously) disobedient. The same goes for syllabics—a mode I more or less abandoned after the first “Rhapsody” in Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender. For the five or so years in which I was mostly writing in syllabics, I felt that the process of counting the syllables on my fingers was a gateway to permissiveness and libidinal excess—and to memory. Memory’s gates opened when I began counting syllables; because the gesture (the ceremony) of counting created, for me, a tabernacle, a sanctuary. The act of counting was the temple; I dwelled in that temple (that “holding environment”?) as long as I counted syllables. Counting syllables was truly a recipe for self-enchantment; for safety; for the unfettered exploration of memory.