Diving into the Linguistic Unconscious: An Interview with Wayne Koestenbaum

ECLECTIC MAY BE the best word to capture Wayne Koestenbaum, an acclaimed poet, distinguished professor, and cultural critic who has written on subjects ranging from Jackie O to Harpo Marx, and from Andy Warhol to humiliation. Koestenbaum’s current project is a trance trilogy, the second volume of which, Camp Marmalade, will be out this month. Koestenbaum and I met virtually, via Zoom, in late January, where, from our respective living spaces on either coast, we discussed the linguistic unconscious, Susan Sontag, and the poetic descent into the underworld. There’s a largesse about Koestenbaum, in the way he speaks and the way he writes, exuding an almost childlike excitement and enthusiasm. Throughout our one-and-a-half-hour conversation, and the several email exchanges that followed, he was totally present, completely invested in the dialogue and in talking about this stuff as if it really matters. Perhaps that’s because for Koestenbaum, it really does.


SHOSHANA OLIDORT: We first met when I enrolled in a class you were teaching at the CUNY Graduate Center called “Trance.” This was around the same time you were writing what would become the first volume in your trilogy of trance poems, The Pink Trance Notebooks. What does the word “trance” mean to you?

WAYNE KOESTENBAUM: Trance, for my purposes, is this state of self-forgetfulness, absence, flight. It’s a state of not knowing who or where I am. Call it dissociation, combined with intense physical groundedness, and absorption in the minutiae of physical sensation. Transport. My “trance” isn’t necessarily different from the state of rapture or tumbling-into-language that many poets and writers feel, in the heat of composition. It’s a state of letting my mind be filled to the brim with words and phrases — and, at the same time, letting my consciousness float away from itself, fall away, keep rolling down the hill like a tumbleweed or a round object with tremendous momentum and will to fall. But the object — the mind — itself doesn’t have this “will.” The mind surrenders to language’s will. And language isn’t a unified thing, either. So language itself doesn’t have a unitary will. But the language-body inside my neurological-cognitive system has characteristic properties, and, by lessening my willed control over this language-body, I can experience the transport and turbulence of feeling language descend/ascend into new vocabularies, a new syntax. I can feel my language start to sound more like itself, and also less, no longer recognizable as mine. A paradox, given how seemingly autobiographical Camp Marmalade is! But, as Maggie Nelson says in her generous blurb for the book, it’s a “fun house of fractal interiorities.” The fractal quality comes from trance. Trance makes fractal the self that falls into trance, the selves that turn to language as an exit strategy and as a technique for widening the aperture of what we can say and know.

Can you walk me through the process of writing Camp Marmalade? Were you taking notes daily, or weekly, or whenever you were so inspired? Was there a set amount of time that you spent each day/week on these notebooks? A particular time of day when you would write? Were you responding to prompts?

I wrote the notebooks that became Camp Marmalade throughout 2014. On trains. In airports. In the waiting rooms of the doctor, the dentist, the periodontist, the eye doctor. On airplanes. In cafes. In bars. At lectures, performances. At night, sitting on my couch. After breakfast, or during breakfast, sitting at the kitchen table. I’d use fragments of time that become suddenly available — moments in transit. Writing on a long train ride was a favored ritual — the two-hour ride from New York City to Hudson. I didn’t give myself “prompts.” I allowed myself to respond to nearby stimuli, mental noise, memories, associations, ambient sounds. I’d try to write quickly enough — and for a long enough interval of time — that I’d lose self-consciousness, and the language itself would take over. My aim was self-forgetfulness. Hugging language as a body, diving into it, letting myself be surrounded by it. Sometimes I’d sit more quietly and wait for the words to appear in my head. But usually I’d rely on the headlong velocity of the physical process, writing longhand in a notebook, to establish a tempo and to permit absorption into a somatic-semantic field.

What about the editing process, how do you even go about editing a work of this kind?

When I revise the raw transcript, I feel a bit posthumous. I’m less like the writer going over her own work and more like the survivor looking for what can be saved. If I start trying just to cross out parts that aren’t good, I will drown. Instead, I look at the transcript page almost from a distance and I say, “What on this page am I going to save, what leaps out at me?” I use a Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil — very soft. I stand up, usually at the kitchen counter, and I lightly mark the pages. I print a reduced transcript, just the stuff that I’ve marked, and then I get to work editing a massive, unpunctuated, disorderly utterance.

The revision of Camp Marmalade was focused on making fragments syntactically clear. I keep to English syntax, grammar is obeyed, but I mess around the fringes. I have graphomania or logorrhea, of a very mild variety — a kind I think we should encourage in people. It’s not pathological, this love of writing for writing’s sake or speaking for speaking’s sake. It’s a way of wanting to be in the presence of language, to keep producing language because it’s comforting to do so. In both The Pink Trance Notebooks and Camp Marmalade I was satisfying the urge to be terse, definitive, localized, and concrete, but also to enjoy momentum.

The lyric shaping happens in the editing process. When I’m revising, I’m hearing beats. I’m not counting syllables precisely, but I can dwell in the couple of inches before the line break, an interim space of maybe two or three beats. I move slowly toward the line break, and then I turn. I’m always aware of an urgent or languid ballet or choreography of the movement forward, left to right, within a line. And I’m aware of what a cluster of three to four lines look like next to each other, with indentations and enjambment: a tidy organism, boundaried and curving. So I’m aware of a visual/spatial poetics, but also a sonic poetics, concerning feet. It’s basically William Carlos Williams territory.

How does the reader figure in your writing and editing process?

First, on the level of the molecular utterance, call it the sentence itself, where I’m thinking of the reader because I want to be clear. I attempt clarity on a moment-by-moment level — clarity of diction, even if the subject is strange. When I write, I’m thinking of readers, like me, who love weird books, and who love them for selfish reasons. For example, one of my favorite books is a so-called novel, blessedly idiosyncratic, by Austrian writer Friederike Mayröcker: brütt, or The Sighing Gardens. It inspired me to write Pink Trance Notebooks because her novel is an autobiography of the act of writing itself, and because, she is, like Gertrude Stein, so adamant about staying within the physical experience of writing. Reading Mayröcker made me want to write. That’s the selfish reason. Last month I read the second and third volumes of Beckett’s Trilogy. I read them for selfish reasons. I wanted to dip deep into the language cesspool.

You keep referring to reading things selfishly, or for selfish reasons. What’s an altruistic reading?

They say nobody reads poetry except poets. By “selfish,” I mean that there’s a distinct, practical use I wish to make of Beckett — I want not to write about him but to write from him. So when I wrote Camp Marmalade, I was thinking of readers out there who want to write books as strange as Camp Marmalade.

Who are these people?

People from my past. I was thinking of friends, colleagues, students, fellow travelers in the world of literature. People who I’ve loved talking about literature with. I taught the Trance class while I was writing The Pink Trance Notebooks, and again while writing Camp Marmalade, distinctly to encourage myself, selfishly, to give me a sense that there were other people interested in these kinds of experiments. The book involves a wish for sociality, sociability. I love the obscene, particularly the “gay” obscene in literature, and I’m certainly thinking of readers who enjoy that tradition. I’m one such reader. Genet, Dennis Cooper — thank God their works exist. I want to be part of the obscene canon. Gently obscene. Not the real thing. Trump is obscene. Trump has changed everything — even the notion that it’s laudable to speak your mind. Maybe it’s not so good to say what’s on your mind. Maybe you should think first.

One of the hallmarks of your work — both poetic and academic — has been the sheer range of subject matter, from Jackie O to Adrienne Rich. How do you manage that?

I’ve spent many years dwelling within the star-gazer’s subject position: the fan. This stance, for me, has expired. Of course, I try to cultivate my ardors, and I care deeply about performance. But I don’t see myself looking outward toward stardom as something that I want to imbibe and use as encouragement for my muse. I guess I’m answering your question indirectly by saying that if in my earlier work on Jackie O, Andy Warhol, I rely on a core text of classic Hollywood, of a certain shlocky Americana from my childhood, in Camp Marmalade, the references veer toward the not popular, the queerly recherché. Earlier in my career I was haunted by the high/low binary, but I don’t feel so transgressive in my attention to formerly verboten figures. I have always felt more transgressive in style than in content. Many people talk about mass culture in very academic ways, and I don’t. I don’t talk about anything in very academic ways.

On the subject of academic work and poetry — can you speak a bit about how you navigate and move between these different worlds you are a part of, as an academic, a cultural critic, a poet, and an artist.

In my teaching and my writing, I’m trying to expand the field of what is possible. That’s my message, and it’s the altruistic motive of this trilogy, to spread the gospel of a certain improvisatory spaciousness of association. Not that I’m such a relaxed person at all, I’m actually pretty uptight. But in my pedagogic play, I’m trying to seem like a combination of Ram Dass and Allen Ginsberg.

Do you see your poetry as being in conversation with your scholarship?

Yes. Camp Marmalade is an unalphabetical and unsystematic encyclopedia of cultural junk. It sounds grandiose to say it is influenced by Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but I modestly aspire toward an aesthetic stance and a way of being an intellectual that Benjamin pioneered. The glamour, pathos, and intellectual dignity in the heap of fragments that he left us viscerally excites a lot of poets, I among them. I also have a very disorganized mind; I’m a syncopater and an interrupter. I find myself quickly derailed by association. Letting myself be derailed and finding ways to be productively derailed has been my writing strategy for a long time. I figure, if I’m going to be derailed, let’s go for that ride; and I try to keep paying attention while I’m being derailed and try to keep a memory of where I was before I got sidetracked.

That sounds very Talmudic.

A Talmudic element I achieved through cultural absorption rather than assiduous study. I was culturally and intellectually raised within a culture that vividly remembers the Talmud.

The title, Camp Marmalade, makes me think immediately of Susan Sontag, and her groundbreaking “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Sontag is a looming figure in your work, and she comes up in this book too. How has she influenced your work?

I am very happy that Sontag appears on the first page of my book. You need, in whatever art you practice, to have some gods, some people you idealize, whose example you take to heart. Sontag has always been one of mine. She invented her authority. Nobody handed it to her — people were willing to give it to her when she asserted it through the excellence of her work and bravado of her manner. She seized that authority through a kind of sentence that she didn’t pioneer. She got it from Benjamin and Emerson, among others, who try not to dilate but to condense. Marmalade is a procedure of distillation.

In that first reference to Sontag, you cite her talk of jam. Let me quote it: “Sontag noted / ‘jam’ means straight / in queer bar argot/ (a ‘jam’ life)—.” Are you riffing on that jam?

Maybe marmalade is queer, and jam is straight. This book gives you a curriculum of weird and obscure practices, but boils it down to the things that remain, the rinds at the bottom of the pot.

But this is not exactly a slim volume. Is there a tension here between minimalism and expansiveness?

Yes, there is a tension between minimalist and maximalist gestures — a tropism toward terseness locally, but globally a spaciousness and sprawl that reflects two parts of my temperament. This schism also reflects two parts of the temperament in American poetry: toward the long poem, and toward the fragment. I’m wordy, and I’m also concise. What I’m not doing is what lyric poems do, which is to return. I do circle back but more in a novelistic, Wagnerian-leitmotif way, a sewing together of obsessions. The book’s travel is not the motion of a lyric poem in which you head somewhere and then you return. I don’t perform a roundtrip, except in the coda.

One of the things I feel pretty apprehensive about when talking to artists is asking them to explain their work — I feel like you’ve put the work out there and it’s not your job to tell me what it means. In fact, it seems like that would kill the mystery somehow. But with that caveat in mind, I still do want to ask about a line in the book that really struck me. The line is from poem #17 (diaper the diagram): “aimed language / is destroyed language.” I love it, and I have a sense of what it means, but can you unpack it for me?

When I was writing the original notebooks that went into Camp Marmalade, I was not aiming. Rather, I was aiming toward things that I had not yet said. Permitting trance, I blurred my mental eyes and listened to language and to the things that I hadn’t yet said, like pretending it was night and I wasn’t wearing glasses. Literally, not looking where I was going, and stumbling, but feeling the urgency of something like aim, directionless aim. Of course, once I’m revising, I am aiming. Near the beginning of Camp Marmalade I say that I’m tired of “pretending to be an / intellectual rather than / an assembler”: an ars poetica moment. I’m very fastidious about arrangements of things, and I’m less clear to myself about aims. Maybe it’s better if language doesn’t aim but only tends. The statement “aimed language / is destroyed language” is trying to argue for less bellicosity of aim, and for tentativeness, a practical politics of willed tentativeness, of moderation.

I noticed certain recurrent themes in the book, particularly around ethnic/cultural/linguistic identification. Scanning the PDF, I found that iterations of the word Jew or Jewish appear more than 20 times in this book, while German comes in as a close second, appearing 16 times, and French running just behind, at 14 or so. What’s driving these preoccupations?

From the very beginning of my writing life, there’s been a promiscuous, illegitimate, infatuated dose of French. French literature has influenced me the most. When I’m playing across linguistic thresholds, French is the only language I can actually gambol in — however tentatively and yearningly. French is available to me as a desire-laden space of linguistic transport.

I was aware, while revising the book, that it’s heavily Jewish-German, especially the first three to four sections. I noticed the resonance of this preoccupation, so I made use of it as a leitmotif without trying to rationalize its hold over me. When I saw the Jewish references in the rough draft, they leapt off the page as important and not to be cut. The poems are rather didactically concerned with the German-Jewish question, and that’s because my father is a German Jew.

I am interested in what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory.” My father’s experiences in Nazi Germany, without ever necessarily being described, form my linguistic unconscious. Also, my mother’s childhood experiences, which, though she grew up in Flatbush, were rooted in the exigencies for which the shorthand might be the Lower East Side, and the territories, far away, that came before Ellis Island. The residue of my parent’s experiences is one basis of my linguistic unconscious. The linguistic unconscious, for everyone, is a messy residue, a bed of potentialities, including memories, phrases, and every scrap and syllable and overtone and homonym and sonic/semantic slippage that forms the language mulch pile in one’s head. In this book, I decided to foreground my ancestral memory and the way I’m haunted by it in my own linguistic play. The materials I play with, when left to my own devices, include those dark undercurrents. When you’re diving into the linguistic unconscious, it’s largely populated by dead people.

Why dead people?

I think of these books as a trilogy, so the traditional concerns of trilogies are on my mind. Trilogies, like Beckett’s, like Dante’s, cover a certain turf, which includes the underworld. I was more aware of this necropolis while writing Camp Marmalade, when it became more real to me that I’m going to do three volumes of trance notebooks. The trajectory of a trilogy involves progression downward, as well as progression upward. Progression — but also a procession, as in processional. I shaped the book around dialogue with the dead — around the speaking graveyard. I am influenced by Ezra Pound, whose Cantos famously include a descent into the underworld. In my poetic memory, a long poem’s terrain is the descent to the underworld. When I write, I am thinking of teachers, predecessors — everyone from Susan Sontag, to piano teachers I had in my youth, to people who gave me a sense of aesthetic fastidiousness, refinement, and care. I’m thinking concretely, as I craft my language, of what I learned from these instructors and guides. Many artists are familiar with this variety of backward bequest, where you try to make and shape something with the fastidiousness you were once taught to revere. I end the book thinking about the sieve and the sifter, and I identify myself as the sifter who doesn’t know whether his labor is worthless, whether it’s a futile gesture to try to sift the worthless from the worthwhile particles. The sifter is a kind of reader, a future, idealized or hoped-for reader who will sift — or rummage — through this pile of rubbish. But the sifter is also me as rag-picker — back to Benjamin, who illuminated the figure of the rag-picker, reader, storyteller.

Descending into the underworld makes me think of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” and Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, both of which involve a descent into some nether/underworld — how, if at all, have these works shaped your own poetic descent into the underworld?

My life as a poet begins with Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Today, it’s not my personal favorite of her poems, though it remains indelible because of its allegorical watertightness. She dives down into the wreck because of an optimism about finding unexplored riches. Rich conveys a sense of plasticity, play, reinvention — of pleasure taken in the athleticism of the dive. The poem crosses genders: “I am she: I am he.” She says she’s not like Jacques Cousteau, but she is like Jacques Cousteau, a wonder-woman and a superhero as well as a visionary poet laureate, a representative, Cassandra/Cousteau. Rich is at that crux in her career when she leapt into greatness, so the poem contains, also, exaltation — she feels her own power as an explorer and a re-animator. As for Alice Notley’s astonishing epic, The Descent of Alette, which avowedly derives from trance: I don’t know if I’m influenced by Alice Notley directly, but I love her work. I revere her willingness to immerse herself in her own linguistic process. I revere her commitment to speaking it all.

I want to close with a line from My 1980s & Other Essays. It’s from an essay about Hart Crane, in which you say, “When I write, I’m always not yet a poet; I’m a striver, a yearner, hoping to crash the House of Poetry.” Do you still feel that way?

More than ever! Camp Marmalade and The Pink Trance Notebooks are sometimes unpoetic. There are many lines that I find musical, and I took great care with my line breaks, but I’m not writing a kind of poetry that strives for the muscular beauty of Hart Crane’s Shelleyan lines, or even the sonorousness of Adrienne Rich’s incantatory lines. Mine is a much more elliptical and notational poetry, with connections to Lorine Niedecker, Robert Creeley, Joe Brainard, John Wieners. Many contemporary poets make use of a “notebook” mode, which is a recognized poetic procedure. By publishing these two volumes of my trance trilogy, I’ve made a confession that I call my work poetry because that is the most spacious and embracing category, and because I work in very short lines and because I work through condensation, juxtaposition, and sound-play — but I don’t perform certain poet-like tasks. Camp Marmalade is a book-length improvisatory adventure that takes place in poetic lines and stanzas and that presupposes a reader who is used to modernist and post-postmodernist discontinuities and jump cuts and aleatory juxtapositions. But it doesn’t stop to measure, along the way, whether or not it needs to call itself a poem to earn the right to breathe.

My hope is that I am experimenting with the edges of what critical inquiry can look like, how it can behave. I’m asking, what if we think of this book’s surfeit of cultural references not as a kind of poetic tic or mannerism, but as an intellectual procedure, a deliberate amassing of cultural history? Perhaps that’s grandiose, but it’s also modest because it involves bowing out of the poetry arena. For all of my gestures of farewell, however, I enjoyed, while writing Camp Marmalade, the privacy that a poet, by temperament, has often the wish to claim — the privacy of telling myself that nobody will read this line, this phrase, this stanza, this explosion — that therefore I can stop trying to limit what I can say or yearn toward saying. Alone in Camp Marmalade, I was just living with my memories and my language, that speaking graveyard, a play-space of ghostly counselors and haunted bunk-mates.


Shoshana Olidort is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Her research focuses on poetry as a mode of performing identity through a consideration of five 20th-century Jewish women poets.