THERE IS NOTHING DRAB about Wayne Koestenbaum. The critic, poet, novelist, and, most recently, painter was dressed in turquoise and yellow the afternoon I chatted with him in his studio; the paintings that covered the walls were small riots of color as well. Koestenbaum’s conversation, like his writing, is both precise and elliptical, frank and expansive. The author of books about opera (The Queen’s Throat), Jackie Onassis (Jackie Under My Skin), and Humiliation dilated on everything from Gertrude Stein to roller coasters while sipping iced coffee. His latest collection, My 1980s and Other Essays, also has elements of the disparate, with pieces on movie stars, porn sites, Debbie Harry, Frank O’Hara, Susan Sontag, and the obscure American painter Forrest Bess, but reveals a coherent sensibility that is urbane, curious, affable, and surprising.
Lisa Levy: One of the themes in My 1980s is a tension between humiliation and a celebration of pleasure. Are you conscious of that dialectic in your thinking?
Wayne Koestenbaum: I’m conscious of that dialectic in my soma. In humiliation’s wake comes a kind of calm in which enthusiasm dies down. I don’t want to make it seem bipolar in a dull way. I’m thinking of the Forrest Bess essay, or the Frank O’Hara essay, or the Barthes essay, as places where I talk about pleasure. And pleasure for those three was found within a context of — if not drought, then a landscape somewhat bleak. I don’t know if that’s entirely true of O’Hara, actually, but the ’50s were pretty bleak.
LL: I see that in O’Hara. You talk very poignantly about the loneliness in his work. There is pleasure in that aloneness.
WK: I think that O’Hara’s volubility and the clutter in the poems presupposes that no one is listening. This is not true, but it seems like an okay hypothesis to assume the volubility could happen in a void, and that the wish to cram one’s page with enthusiastic utterance can be a logical response to nobody being home. That’s more the case with somebody like [Diane] Arbus, where she’s finding little pockets of jubilation that are framed within each photograph. The obvious meaning of the photograph is abjection, but the obtuse meaning is jubilation, beauty, staunchness, pattern.
LL: You have a real enthusiasm for subtext.
WK: I’m gratified to hear you say that. I think a lot of thinkers would presume that subtext is the stuff you need to sweep away to have a clear space for the structure, the argument, the major truths. My predilection for subtext is certainly distracting; I know that I look for the subtext before I look above, for the — supratext? I’m very uncomfortable in aesthetic environments where the supratext is crying out to be paid attention to, like in a novel. In fact I find it very hard to read novels. I realize I’m echoing the point that David Shields makes in Reality Hunger, which is that we don’t want story anymore because we want something like what reality TV gives us. I don’t want that, but I do want sharp contour. It’s like my fondness for parataxis, a word I only recently learned but I am proud to use. Pattern, contour, color, line, filigree. The syllable rather than the word. Sound rather than sense. Sentence rhythm rather than sentence meaning. The word that distracts rather than the appropriate word. The archaic or off-pitch word. Diction, rhythm, tone.
Elizabeth Hardwick, for instance, has this strange way of being super precise but also kind of vague in the same sentence. I’m mesmerized by it. I heard a lecture she gave at NYU a long time ago. I think Susan Sontag was there; James Atlas introduced her. It was a very small but elite audience. Elizabeth Hardwick was talking about her favorite poets’ prose. She had this stack of books and she kind of randomly read passages out loud. It was pretty incoherent as a lecture, not a stellar performance. But it really revealed the way she reads. There was something about [Vladimir] Mayakovsky, a line about “the dark velvet of his talent.” And I remember Hardwick saying in her Southern accent, “‘The dark velvet of his talent,’ what a great phrase!” That phrase makes no point about Mayakovsky: it’s just a kind of blurry, romantic moment. It showed what she was looking for in literature that she loved, these isolated moments of tone.
LL: There’s a certain preoccupation with thresholds in My 1980s, like in that photograph of Alice B. Toklas on the threshold.
WK: With the Alice photo, what’s symbolic or eloquent about her standing at the threshold is that her position reveals her silence. Toklas’s silence or semi-silence is the obverse of Stein’s verbal voraciousness, and to be in the threshold the way Alice is portrays her liminal relationship to Gertrude’s scene of writing as collaborator, but also absented one. She is also the only stable referent we have to Stein’s writing. Alice is plot, dramatis personae, scene, landscape — she’s everything.
In poetry, the threshold is the line break. In prose, the threshold would be any pause, any period or paragraph break. I don’t know if that many essays in this book are written in one-sentence paragraphs but I like to write in them to maximize the threshold. I certainly like to write in paragraphs separated by an asterisk, like in the “My 1980s” essay. My feeling is that it makes the threshold more prominent and dramatic, and introduces the threshold as a kind of semantic element. It makes the threshold part of the meaning; it foregrounds it.
One thing I do like about fiction that has a lot of dialogue is that there is so much threshold. Ivy Compton-Burnett: she gives a lot of threshold. You never know if someone is in the room or not because it’s just dialogue with no attribution, so all of the sudden somebody speaks and you realize they are in the room and have crossed the threshold. It’s so scary.
LL: Do you like scary things?
WK: I do like scary movies. I don’t like scary experiences particularly. I don’t like noise, fast motion, turbulence, overstimulation. It gets me down.
LL: This collection is called My 1980s, and a lot of the essays have a nostalgic tug. What role do you think nostalgia plays in your work? I’m thinking about the etymology of the word, the longing for home, and in the essays where you talk about your own past you evoke your childhood home. But then there are also your essays about cultural icons like Lana Turner. That’s the other thread of nostalgia.
WK: In the academic world for the last 20 years or so, nostalgia has been a really bad word. But there is a critic, Svetlana Boym, who wrote a book called The Future of Nostalgia, and I’ve had discussions with her about recuperating nostalgia. Sometimes I’ve felt like it was an accusation, or a possible accusation, that so much of my writing is merely nostalgic. So I’ve developed my own theory of nostalgia, not as a return to something that was but as an utter reinvention that has to do with the future.
The reason Walter Benjamin’s work means so much to me is specifically because of this issue of nostalgia. He’s not really nostalgic in his work yet he talks about the aura of the past. He has a specifically revolutionary agenda about looking backward. Once I got that about Benjamin I thought: Okay. Here’s this Jewish mystic Marxist who wants to talk about the Arcades of 19th-century Paris not because he has nostalgia for them, more because he is curious about the past. So he is nostalgic, but he’s more scrupulous than that.
I don’t think I have a longing for home. My strongest sensation is for the thing that was never experienced. Bursts of nostalgia are very potent for me as sources of language and image so I don’t mess with them. A friend of mine once told his psychiatrist he was always sexually interested in a certain kind of person who turned out to be bad for him, and the psychiatrist said, “You don’t fuck with that shit.” Don’t mess with your unconscious. If your unconscious gets excited about something, you follow it. That’s my theory about nostalgia.
LL: You talk about how your writing excites you and persecutes you, and also how you have to eliminate the schmutz from your writing. Do you think you are a dirty writer?
WK: I remember very vividly in childhood hearing the phrase “a dirty mind,” and that was the sense of identity I always had as a kid. I had a dirty mind. I thought it was something to be proud of.
But, on the other hand, I don’t like mess. I spend a lot of time cleaning up my writing. When I say my writing persecutes me, some of the persecution is my sense of my writing’s intrinsic messiness and how much work it is to clean it up. I read a draft of what I wrote and I feel viscerally disgusted. I’m angry at it and I’m angry at me. It’s the way I feel about the broom I used to sweep this studio last week — the way it always has schmutz on it. I hate that. I don’t like dirt!
LL: So you see it everywhere.
WK: Yes. I have a dirty mind. So it’s a funny contrast.
LL: Is there anything you won’t write about?
WK: I don’t write very much about my siblings. I often think that I won’t write about politics, but I don’t think that’s true. Certainly I remember feeling when I was writing Humiliation that I was writing more overtly about politics than I had before and was aware that it was a threshold I had crossed. But the kind of writer I am to many readers is the author of a book on opera and a book on Jackie O. I guess both of those things are assuming this eschewal of overtly progressive politics, and that’s where I become the writer of nostalgia.
I would love to write something a bit more anti-American. I sometimes think there are secret political agendas that have fired my work for five years at a time. The defense of nostalgia has been one; I think another might be a polemic against American terror and noise. You asked if I liked scary things: I like Tippi Hedren in The Birds but I don’t like roller coasters. I don’t like fireworks, I don’t like mobs, I don’t like Black Friday after Thanksgiving. I don’t really like the internet (But I also love it and depend on it.) I don’t like smartphones. There’s a lot I don’t like, and my not liking isn’t even an opinion, it’s a sensation; the things I really object to in this country that would be considered political. It’s always bothered me that politicians, mostly men, have these authoritative male voices. Just the sound of men’s voices and the look of men in suits disgusts me.
LL: Here was my planned last question; we’ll see how it goes. In your Cindy Sherman essay you talk about “ceasing to care” as a moment in an artist’s life when she knows she’s really on to something. Have you ceased to care?
WK: I had ceased to care when I wrote that essay but I’ve started to care again. When I started painting that was a big move toward caring. But let’s just say to neatly end with a paradox, that starting to paint also involved stopping caring because I had to not care about being good. Even though I really cared about painting, I couldn’t care about being sophisticated or coming off as schooled.
LL: So you got your feeling back by becoming an amateur again?
WK: I’m always trying in writing to be amateurish. I don’t feel smart when I’m writing, I feel very, very dumb. It’s hard to say that without sounding disingenuous. Sontag says somewhere that she revises to be as smart as possible, and I do love the phase of revision where a paragraph moves from being really stupid to being smart. I notice this as the sentences get more dense and as I cut out awkward syntax and put better words in. I find something like art in it and I bring it forward. It’s kind of like putting on a lot of makeup. Smart makeup.