Wayne Koestenbaum: "To be torn apart/is my ambition".
Koestenbaum might be best know 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. Art Forum 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 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.
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 'l' 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's also recently published a book-length essay entitled Humiliation, as well as The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, his latest critical book.
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 2oio at a cafe in Cambridge, Mass., during his visit to the city where he lived for seven years as a student and afterward in the 1970s and 1980s. We followed up our talk with an email correspondence over the course of several months in 2011.
CHRISTOPHER HENNESSY 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?
WAYNE KOESTENBAUM 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-consciousness interior monologue. The speaker is a tourist at a cafe, 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 investigation....
Language is alienated from the speaker, or the speakeralienated from language?
WK Writing in Venice, I experienced a salutary alienation frommy "own" language. This year, I'm taking Frenchlessons--and the highlight of my current writing life is the experienceeach week of writing a short"histoire" for my French teacher: a prose composition, approximately 500 words, inFrench. If my writing will grow, will continue, I feel that its growthand continuation must take root in whatever process occurs in theseFrench compositions--their matter-of-factness, their simplicity, theirpuerility, their honesty. Writing in French, I'm rediscoveringthe power and pleasure of language. My composition yesterday was aboutpainting nude self-portraits: I've been painting (in acrylics,watercolors, gouaches) for nearly a year now, and this week I'vebeen experimenting with nude self-portraits. I wrote a Frenchcomposition yesterday about exactly how I mix the colors to make upflesh-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 newproliferations in this latest work. To appropriate a term from queertheory, are we witnessing a celebration of poetic "polymorphousperversity"? (Say that three times fast!)
WK Yes, yes, yes! As in the "fingerfucking"moment, above, I'm happy to send a line of a scene or a sentenceof a stanza in a sexually perverse direction, not because I'm themost perverse citizen ofthe U.S., but because it's my duty as apoet to push my language and consciousness as far into the"forbidden" as possible. William James wrote about fringesof consciousness, didn't he? About the half-thought realmssurrounding the conscious mind? Those half-thought realms are, to me,the treasure chests of perverse fantasy. And I like to treat a poem (ora sentence) as a cruiser whose tropism is toward the thrill around thecorner, the body in the ramble.
CH I think that the journey your work goes on through your sixbooks of poetry is a fascinating one. It begins in a place ofautobiography and with a rich, ornate language, intricate form, carefulrhymes in often-longish poems. The poems become shorter, more cutting,more elusive, more interested in dreams and the strangeness oflanguage--and yet the poems never move away from the personal, orperhaps [the idea of] personality. I think that distinction--thepersonal and personality--is hugely important.
WK I've always been drawn to logorrheic poeticpractices; 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 soI thought) to seek "reality." And now I'm sick ofreality, and I want my fantasies back. Lacan (I think!) defined the Realas that which remains invisible to us--that is, our fantasies.
CH Your latest work, put next to your early work, isvery different. But no matter what changes in the work's style, toneand formal concerns, the poetry is "about" Wayne, Steve,family, the power or curse of memory, and one poet's veryspecific tastes. Has part of your project been to map the possibilitiesof writing about the self, to understand all the ways a poem can beabout the personal? Almost as if each book has asked the question,'How can I talk about the personal and personality in a differentway?' Does that resonate?
WK It does. Just to do a quick narration to parallel yournarration: certainly the first book--which actually came after manyinstantiations of my "first book" (including onecollection, never published, titled Fifty Sonnets)--represented what seemed to me a final, relaxed, bruised arrival atautobiography and narration. I gave up many screens and devices,including artfulness, or the small, shaped poem, with short lines. Forme, the discovery of syllabics and the prosaic was tantamount todiscovering that I could be straightforwardly, embarrassinglyautobiographical. And that discovery was very liberating. It seemed likean endpoint from which I would never budge. But then I got tired ofauthenticity; those poems came too readily from a locatable voice, andwhen I found that I was starting to fake that voice to make a poem, Ibecame interested in different kinds of technical and tonalmanipulation. But the fact remained that it was always still me writingthe poem, and my wellspring of material--dreams, personal life, domesticlife, dailiness, family, history, erotic imagination, the culturalImaginaire in which I dwell--remains the same. Now I arrive with fatigueat those thematic founts: "Oh, I'll let you in the poemafter all; I can't help it."
In my new book, there's a little poem called "Atthe Grave of Yvonne De Carlo." In the old days I would haveincluded details about Yvonne De Carlo [a film actress remembered todayfor her role as Lily Munster in The Munsters TV show]. As it is now, she barely appears in the poem. It'smore about fatigue, Steve; it's about a penumbra of thresholdmoods ... but Yvonne De Carlo is the locator. I have neither the energynor the belief to delineate Yvonne De Carlo, the way I stepped into thevoice of Bette Davis in "Star Vehicles" la sequence ofpoems 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 writeabout the self. There are these weird movements from what seem likeautobiography to what could be autobiography--but just isn't. For example, you'rewriting about Steve, but then in one poem he runs you over with amotorcycle. Or you'll be talking about your mother, and suddenlyshe'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 ninelives, everybody has magical powers. Steve has been my boyfriend forthirty years, and since I'm a poet of the daily, he appearsfrequently. Steve has thirty identities. He shows up in my dreams, andditto with my mom, who manifests everywhere, but in disguise. Is"protean" the easy word to apply to thisslipperiness?
I'm not consciously critiquing self or identity whenSteve runs me over with the motorcycle on "the boulevard of moonsmut," [from "Female Masculinity,"Best-selling Jewish Porn Films]. I'm tonally stepping back from earnestness or sincerity intoidleness, indifference, vituperativeness. At least since 1994, when Ibecame a disciple of Gertrude Stein, my work has consciously celebratedidleness and the stationary, sitting still, not caring. And I'veallied myself with Andy Warhol, who represents a very differentaesthetic principle than my earlier idols, Proust, Barthes, andO'Hara.
CH Maybe you just answered my next question, which is about theidea of not taking oneself too seriously. I think there's anelement of that in your work. What does such a stance as a poet offeryou? What does it risk? I suppose this might be connected to a sort ofSteinian 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 DonaldAllen'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 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-Romantichigh seriousness, an investment in my own pathos. I don't yearnfor high intellectual seriousness. Sometimes I think (perhaps wrongly)that poets who come up through the MFA route have a falsely idealizedintellectuality, because they think that intellectuality is the magicserum that they're going to inject into poetry to lift it abovethe folderol of an earlier generation. Sometimes I don't evenconsider myself a poet; I'm better known as a prose writer or anart critic. When I write a poem, I don't try to address a majorideological issue or question the veracity of the lyric. I don'tfeel burdened by the major obligations that some poets these days bringto the table when they write. Let me put it bluntly: I'm fed upwith Adorno; I've had plenty of Adorno; if I want Adorno, I knowwhere he is; if Adorno appears in my poems it's because I want tofuck his ass and it's not because I think it's really,really important to educate the reader about Adorno; if Adorno appearsin my poem, it's because he's making a cameo appearance indrag. I think it's great to read Adorno (I love MinimaMoralia ... I almost bought a German copy of it at Lame Duck Books the otherday), but I do not feel it's my job to educate the reader aboutAdorno. My stance is an aesthete's, like FrankO'Hara's. He includes Poulenc and other recherchefigures in his poems, but only because they are the furniture in hismind; he's not making a bid for poetry as a new form of criticaltheory or historiography.
CH On the way here today the key word I kept coming back tothat clarified your work for me was correspondence--
CH And it's not juxtaposition, or not simplyjuxtaposition (that's a different idea). Sometimes I'llread 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 hugepart of the poem.
WK I love "correspondence." Correspondence andjuxtaposition mean a great deal to me. I'll pick two names thatmagically belong together, though no one (to my knowledge) has evertried to ally them: Adorno and Gina Lollobrigida. It's not as ifGina Lollobrigida and Adorno have much to do with each other, but whynot use them the way a surrealist would, to build connections? AndAdorno is so much more fun when we put him into bed with GinaLollobrigida. One can then play around with Adorno'sItalian-ness, and we can start playing around with Europe in the 1950s,with film, with libertarianism, with scandal, with the off-topic. Forme, just sounding those two words, those two names (Adorno,Lollobrigida) brings up a giddy field of possibilities; thejuxtaposition sets my imagination racing. The juxtaposition is not adissertation or an argument. The juxtaposition is a yard sale or a usedbookstore. "Oh my god, here's a first edition of [SusanSontag's] Against Interpretation, and here's a copy of Look magazine with Sandra Dee on thecover. And they came out the same year."
One of my new poems, "Return of the Noun," feelslike a position paper on the juiciness of juxtaposed names. The poem isfilled with names (Proust, Anna Freud, Lorna Luft); in thispoem--without apology, and with considerable pushiness--I lay out orstage the comeback of the noun. I write: "the return of the nounin her figure-fitting automobile." I imagined a busty MissArkansas riding in a convertible. Miss Noun.
CH Speaking of naming things. Your poems are full of culturalreferences in particular. I feel like in some sense gay writers handlecultural references in ways that are maybe more ... well, juicy. Themetaphor I come to is one where we are studding the poems with thesereferential gems. Do you see that as a gay sensibility?
WK Yes and no. There's a great tradition of bejeweledbricolage that includes Joseph Cornell, Jack Smith, the surrealists,Frank O'Hara, and even in his way Walter Benjamin. This traditionincludes the dandy, the collector, the fetishist. This tradition revealsa big gay imprint; in this milieu, trash and value intersect. This realmhas often been called "camp," but "camp" isan overly casual shorthand for a complex system of jewels, ofcataloguing. In this world, there's an attention to eachitem's treasureability--but also a disdain for settling down forlife with any single jewel. There's a wish to have as many ofthem as possible running through one's imaginativebloodstream--
CH--and to really draw on the textures of each one. Juicinessis a really good term here.
WK Juiciness and the encyclopedic intersect with so-calledpromiscuity. I'll invoke now a whole range of identities andpractices, 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 callingit a great tradition of dandies, collectors, fetishists, thieves.(Basically anyone in the twentieth century that interests me belongs tothis canon.) I'm hesitant to call it a gay sensibility, hesitantto call it camp, because I don't want to fence it in. If we callit a gay sensibility, then people who don't like a gaysensibility will want to persecute and place off limits all of ourkeepsakes. If we call it camp, other people will use that term todismiss the whole kingdom. Some observers, of course, would proudlyconsider Judy Garland and Joan Crawford elements of a gay sensibility,of camp. But other observers would use the term "camp" (orthe notion of a "gay sensibility") to dismiss Judy Garlandand Joan Crawford, and would not understand that Adorno and GershomScholem also belong with Judy Garland. I want to widen the field oftreasure.
CH This all brings to mind one of my favorite parts ofThe Milk of Inquiry, where you write [in "Four Lemon Drops"], 'Tm partof a fag generation//I respect fag poesy, once dismissed it/ somethingfaggy about poesy, period / lyrical voice recalling/itself at end ofeach line is faggy impetus"; and "I can only do so much tohelp the English language//in deployment of fag idiom I aro not alone/inseeking continuity between mystical expansion and fag idiom/evenDickinson in her own way used fag idiom." The word"fag" becomes so silly in its repetition, and yet I reallywant to know what a "fag idiom" can be. This seems like animportant moment in your work. Can you talk about your relationship tothe 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 essaysFag Limbo. I know that "fag" is pejorative, but it speaks acres;fag is paisley, fag is pink, fag is Frank O'Hara, fag is AndyWarhol, fag is beauty, fag is the devalued treasure. Fag idiom is liltand enthusiasm and innuendo. Fag idiom is George Platt Lynes and RyanTrecartin. My writing is "tight," I hope (Eileen Mylescalled it "tight" in her blurb for Best-SellingJewish Porn Films); but I write tightly in order to highlight (by chiaroscuro) thesinuosities of my idiom, its drift and sway. IfI let my sinuosity do itsthing without limits, I'd sound utterly purple. Perhaps I soundmore purple with my pert incisions and excisions, my fetishistic cuts, myasterisks and punctums and interruptions.
CH There are lots of personal details, erotic disclosures inthe first two books, but something happens with the third book [ofpoetry], 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 ofInquiry Hennessy has brought to the interview.] The poems in "Four LemonDrops" are autobiographical: "Mom do you mind if I includeyou in the poems/she wouldn't mind, secretly she might / it wouldbe Mom-like to mind / and not tell me." Or "I have fewshort friends/John, dead now, was my short friend." That'sdirect and prosaic. Here's a poem that one could basically call afantasy about fucking my father. [Poem 48 from "Metamorphoses(Masked Bali)"]:
Vista shaved between raised splayed legs-- seen from behind--my keeper beckons-- I stagger past the humming television's perfume infomercial--groin 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-- Carrara--blank--cream foolscap-- 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 rearpenetration that is also vaginal (because it's a"rebeginning"). I know that when I wrote that poem I wasin a trance, a fantasy, going deep into a paternal anal cavity.... [But]it wasn't about my actual father. I couldn't tell a littlestory about my father at that point; the adventure was archetypal anddream-like but was still a vivid, physical experience. I rememberwriting that poem and thinking, "Whoa, either I'm goingcrazy, or I'm a shaman, or I'm part of some ecstatic gaymovement that I'm going to inaugurate right now." I feltas if I were diving into the wreck, but the drowned vessel was myfather's anus.
CH I wonder if gay men, lesbians (and straight women as well)have done something really important in terms of making American poetrybe 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 AllenGinsberg's poetry that meant the most to me is the bit in"Kaddish" when he describes seeing his mother'snude body. Also in the poem "To Aunt Rose" he talks aboutbeing naked in his aunt's presence. Ginsberg gives ussemi-incestuous scenes of nudity--mother, aunt, himself. Thatexhibitionism totally turned me on and seemed the path to follow. And Ialso think the scene in The Milk of Inquiry about the father's anus--the movement toward a more abstract wayof dealing with sex--came from reading Dennis Cooper. I was impressedthat for Cooper the sexual quest became allegorical and disembodied,that it became a death-drive into the crack. So in my work I'veconsciously tried to be more innovative and less reductive about bodies;I've tried to think about how many cracks I can find in a singlebody. Even something like these lines: "Charity informed thebutt,/made it a locus"; "I decided, in fantasy, to be kindto his legs"; "V's stomach crossed the hotelroom."; and "Looseness//suited the bush:/it had all day,all year.// No one--no girl--would ever discover / his pudge duskstomach,//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 moreabstract. It's a turn away from verisimilitude to approach atruth that I learned from reading writers like Dennis Cooper: when youplunge into the body, the body has many chambers, and the parts are notsubordinated 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 (MaskedBall)," 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 mythologicalpersonae--Orpheus, Medusa, the dismembered ones, the tongue-lessones--and so that identification gave me a feeling of being invaginatedor in pieces. I wanted to be Orpheus. If the poems are more difficult in"Metamorphoses (Masked Ball)," the opacity comes fromwanting to dig into anatomy more deeply. I temporarily gave up thepersona of "Wayne." The same divestment happened inBest-selling Jewish Porn Films "Wayne" is in some of them, but in others"Wayne" isn't there. Instead, we find a kind ofironic "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. (Thisis discussed most powerfully in the prose of TheQueen's Throat). Can you talk about why it's important for you to understandart as embodied through or in the artist--art as being experienced orreflected in the body?
WK I'm tempted to answer that by making a quickinventory of what writing poetry feels like to the body. Poetry isconnected to my fingers; I'm a pianist. I have a compulsivelonging to play around with the two keyboards--the typewriter keyboardand the piano keyboard. Both are sensuously alive.
I still play piano, as the poems indicate. But I didn'tplay for twelve years, and I didn't play when I was writingOde to Anna Moffo . I bought a piano after I wrote The Queen's Throat in'9z. The sequence "Piano Life" (inRhapsodies of a Repeat Offender) describes my re-encounter with the piano. When I don't playpiano, 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 writepoems on the typewriter; I like the slowness and the deliberateness ofthat process. A line break involves the pleasure of manually returningto the left, which you don't do in prose--except when you typeprose on a typewriter, in which case you have the delight of the manualreturn. On a computer you don't make a manual return. Thephysical satisfaction of poetry is experiencing a limit at the end ofthe line, and making a manual return. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (in heressay "A Poem Is Being Written") refers to line breaks andenjambments as forms of spanking. I support that analogy; the process ofpoetry allows a writer (or reader) to master the spanking, the pleasureof the recoil. I also love the left edge of the paper'smargin.
CH The connections between sex and poetry, sex and writing, areabundant in your work, both prose and poetry. You even compare writing apoem to turning a trick. Let's keep exploring this connectionbetween the act of writing and the act of sex. Do you see it as a veryreal, embodied connection?
WK Absolutely. Here are the things it involves. The feeling ofwanting to have an orgasm, either when you're having sex or whenyou're aroused, and the feeling of wanting that ... [pauses]it's a very complicated, philosophical state. It's one ofthe most intense sorts of duration that a human can feel. I write aboutit explicitly in the introduction to my Andy Warhol biography. I talkabout what time felt like while I was watching Warhol's films.His films are about a sensation of time or duration when you are waitingfor sex or waiting to find the right guy--a slow drip of turn-on thatlasts forever without release. A somatic state of yearning.Rilke's Duino Elegies, which are the height of the poetic sublime, take place entirely inthat pre-cum state. It's all about engorgement. With engorgementcomes delusion. When you're in that state, you're notmaking good decisions [both laugh]. Frank O'Hara's poem"You Are Gorgeous and I'm Coming" also deals withthat 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 tendencyfor a long time. The phallic seemed like a reprehensible category. Butnow I have come to a more complex understanding of my own version ofphallicism or whatever is phallic in me: eagerness, exhibitionism,jutting out; a visible proclamation of what I want; a tendency towardundeniable and sensational announcements; an inability to hide. And ifthere's something bold or "out there" in my work, Ihope it's not akin to an imperialist or a Conquistador, butrather to a three-year old running around naked with a hard-on: aninnocent, phallic narcissism.
Holes are important to me symbolically in my writing. I have apoem in The Milk of Inquiry called "Holes"; holes come up frequently in the"Metamorphoses (Masked Ball)." I could lead you on a tourof holes in my work--not just the anus, which is the big male hole. Mywork 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 AnnaMoffo, which Hennessy has brought.] In"Sheherazade" 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 within me ...
That says it quite explicitly. "To be torn apart/is myambition." I identify with Orpheus. I celebrate my fragmentationas a sexy, violated position. And there's an anal aspect. I ambeing fucked, and it kind of hurts but it's ecstatic. Look at howthe poem begins: "One word, 'nacreous,' coils in melike a conch, a minaret,/or a question always in the process of beingposed." "Coils in me." And it's there later,too, when I write: "What I hear enters me,/Ravel scored it so/thetremor in voir/ makes me clench my rectum."
CH Yes! [Hennessy takes the book]. And at the endof"Sheherazade" 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 thedifferent selves (past, present, future) exist simultaneously, creatinga masked ball of multiples. The possibilities for sex are scarilyinfinite. It's like the Marquis de Sade, who imagines amythological, perverted sequence of sex acts, a round-robin ofbuggeries. A Sadean confluence of positions and attitudes throb in meimaginatively when I write, not as physical sensations but as yearnings.Also, what I outdatedly refer to as "horniness" (the stateof restless cruising, of restlessly wanting to find someone) is simply acondition of rapt interest and attentive pursuit; beinginterested in life means being a little horny [both laugh]. So, I'm writing in mynotebook, on the train, and I think: "Wow, that guy over there isreally really cute. Maybe he'll come sit over here."
CH Does form have a relationship to sex, sexiness? InModel Homes, for example, you write that ottava rima gives you "a stripteaseliberty."
WK I think we're back to phallic narcissism. An aspectof showing off is built into ottava rima; but by writing in thosestanzas, I'm cross-dressing as Byron or antically reinhabiting adead body, Byron's dead body, and playing around with the Byroniccostume. That gave me an exhibitionistic pleasure that then triggeredmore exhibitionism of content. I use the word"exhibitionism" without pejorative taint. Writing isshowing 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 playingaround with them. I'm getting off. I'm trying to titillateyou. There's this magical substance, language, that I'mlaying out for you. Then you're going to fondle it. RolandBarthes said all of this, and more, in The Pleasure of theText, 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 of a Repeat Offender] and how time puts its pressure on the poem, how time is so crucial, howaware we must be of speaking from the future where AIDS is always in ourpast and there's nothing we can do about it. Not so much theexperience of "duration" but ... am I talking aboutnostalgia, maybe, and its ... obverse? The poem made me wonder if gaymen 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--/ theworld 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 thesisdue the Ides of March."; and "The air was poetry; / Ihadn't yet written / a single line of verse"; "heexpressed wild wonder/at all the sex ahead of me:/the riptides, thelagoons,/the violations"--
WK "Erotic Collectibles" narrates the years ofsexual awakening around the arrival of AIDS. History changed for me in1981, 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 identityand death and time come together for me has always been marked byAIDS.
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 writingthose books, that I was HIV-negative.
CH Both of the final two poems in Ode to AnnaMoffo are elegies, "The Answer Is In The Garden" and"Dog Bite." But they both begin in some other place onlyto end in elegy, with stops in memory along the way. That was aninteresting strategy. How did you come to take these routes as ways toelegize lost friends? Did you consider more direct elegies?
WK You can begin a poem anywhere and end with a death, becausethere's always a death in the wings. The way I used to write apoem was to start with one thing and slowly move until I reached a pointwhere I felt I had reached a depth that satisfied me--and that endpointwas usually death. I remember what that process felt like: I would sitdown and say [gestures toward Hennessy's case], "Let mewrite a poem about your black valise," and then I would probablyend with Walter Benjamin and his briefcase that was never found afterhis death. I wouldn't consciously start knowing that terminus,but I would find it--"it" meaning Walter Benjamin'sbriefcase--and its imminence would excite me.
CH Somehow we've made our way backwards in time from thenew work to the early poems. If the new poem "Return of theNoun" is a position paper, I wonder if the early poem"Rhapsody" is a manifesto? It seems to argue its ownpoetics: "I don't want to explain an emotion, I want topaint a verbal ring / * / of posies or forget-me-nots around it, and letthe circle / * / imply the sentiment, as a blouse in a closet suggests abody--"; and "A poem should be the letter you dare notwrite or send." Did its form influence this?
WK I wrote the poem by putting regular 8 1/2-by-11-inch typingpaper into my IBM Selectric horizontally rather than vertically. This sounds like a minor fact, but for me it was major: putting thepaper into the typewriter sideways gave me a much longer field for theline--and, literally, I typed at a furious pace, in the first draft ofthe poem. I typed as fast as I could, racing to the edge of the page. Itried to type at the speed of thought. The speed of mytranscription-of-thought corresponded to the freedoms I was espousing inthe 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 destructionof my former self, and the creation (through play) of some new organicimpetus of movement. (I'm probably reinventing the wheel, andsounding like Kerouac/Ginsberg/D. H. Lawrence. Who cares? The experiencefelt incredible.)
CH I want to end by talking about a kind of exemplary moment inyour first book, a moment that contains many of your work's majorthemes (form, memory, language, the erotic, and a certain strangeness).But it's also a moment that's so different from the work Icited 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 thefield, phallic narcissism, even Max Grand, but we've only brieflytalked about your use of form, and things as foundational as rhyme, sotightly controlled in these lines. For a poet whose writing has becomeso different from that first book, I'm profoundly curious abouthow 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 pointlesslyincarcerating. Rhyming, for me, has been a way of forgetting where Istand--of forgetting what I planned and intended-and letting anotherlevel of work (of association, of play) take precedence over the dismallabor of intentional thought. When I rhyme, I do so because it feelslike a magical resource--a way to abandon my attachment to sentinels andrule-makers. I know that rhyming involves strict rules--that rhyming isitself a rule. And yet, when I rhyme, I feel deeply (and joyously)disobedient. The same goes for syllabics--a mode I more or lessabandoned after the first "Rhapsody" inRhapsodies of a Repeat Offender. For the five or so years in which I was mostly writing in syllabics, Ifelt that the process of counting the syllables on myfingers was a gateway to permissiveness and libidinal excess--and to memory.Memory's gates opened when I began counting syllables; becausethe gesture (the ceremony) of counting created, for me, a tabernacle, asanctuary. The act of counting was the temple; I dwelled in that temple(that "holding environment"?) as long as I countedsyllables. Counting syllables was truly a recipe for self-enchantment;for safety; for the unfettered exploration of memory.
photograph by Andrea Bellu/Ad Hoc Vox
CHRISTOPHER HENNESSY is the author ofLove-In-Idleness (Brooklyn Arts Press), a finalist for the Thorn Gunn Award forGay Poetry. He is also the author of Outside the Lines: Talking withContemporary Gay Poets (University of Michigan Press). His book Our Deep Gossip:Queer Conversations about Poetry and Desire is forthcoming from University of Wisconsin Press.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2013|
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