People in My Imagination: Five Questions and Five Answers with Kate Durbin

By Dorothea LaskyJanuary 1, 2016

People in My Imagination: Five Questions and Five Answers with Kate Durbin
I started this column, "Five Questions and Five Answers," by interviewing the mesmerizing Cassandra Gillig in 2014. I’m back now with the first of a new three-part series. What governs this interview series is the idea of the imagination. People often talk of the imagination as if it is one thing for everyone, a place without context, a specific, singular landscape that we all go to. This kind of talk can make people feel that if they don’t have immediate access to this single place, they can’t engage in imaginative thinking, which disempowers infinite possible new ways of seeing the world. Everyone has their own imaginative landscapes, populated with very particular experiences, and when people open the door and let us into those places, it helps each of us connect with our own. It also helps us see the doors that connect all of our imaginations together. Because imagination is both specific and universal, real and unreal, profane and holy, a place of both rest and unrest, that we all can go to and share with others when we make new things.

I am lucky that I have the opportunity to interview the artists, thinkers, and writers who populate my own imaginative landscape, and to share our short conversations with you.

In this installment, I asked five questions of the interdisciplinary and virtuosic literary star, Kate Durbin.


DOROTHEA LASKY: I think I first really felt a true kinship with you when I watched your performance in the video for Luke Buckett’s "Must Be Luv." I love that video and song so much — it’s so sad and romantic. But what I was most drawn to was the way your character seems so distracted (she’s always cooking, eating candy, and drinking Slurpees, looking at her phone) and the scenes in the kitchen where I can see a refrigerator. The fridge is gloriously decorated with about a hundred fruit magnets, which is something that I like to do. I don’t know if you had a hand in decorating the video set, but I have always worshiped your sublime costuming and sense of style. All that attention to visual detail and objects takes a lot of obsessive looking and collecting. I also think that there is a beautiful obsessive quality to your aesthetic exploration into the feminine in all of your work. So, I’d like to know, how does obsessive looking play a role in your writing?

KATE DURBIN: I directed and came up with the concept and set design and costuming for that video, so I’m happy you like it! We filmed in my apartment, where at the time I lived with Luke. We were donning the roles of four rock couples Yoko Ono and John Lennon, June and Johnny Cash, Priscilla and Elvis Presley, and ourselves. We wanted to emphasize the banal in these highly mythologized couples’ lives, instead of the glam and glory. I was thinking about how all these women would be kind of doing their own things while their men were pursuing music. I’m also always playing with the idea of fumbling under the gaze, disappointing the gaze, whether that’s the camera’s gaze or the male gaze or whatever, so that explains the fidgeting and distraction of my characters. (Side note: The irony of that video is that some of the tragic elements of those rock couples narratives are what made me leave Luke. Does life imitate art, or the other way around? Narratives are powerful.)

There is so much to look at in the video — I am obsessive about detail. In the video, each fruit magnet, every product placement, etc., was all intentional. And in E!, my book, you get tons of product placement, every brand, every article of clothing, every bat of a fake eyelash. There is so much to look at. But of course the real question is not what you are looking at, but what you see. Anaïs Nin said we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. When you see a woman on a screen, do you see a person? Do you see an object? What do you see?

Your book, E! Entertainment, has had such an exciting response, because it seems to extend past traditional literary circles into an audience that consumes pop culture just as readily as literature. Could you tell us about the process of writing, E! Entertainment, and how this process may have mirrored or been different than the process of writing your other books? Also, how is a piece of literature a kind of reality show?

This ties back to my last answer. To write E! I spent a three-year meditative period with a number of reality TV shows and I obsessively and painstakingly transcribed these shows and crafted them into literature. Through this process, I myself changed my perception of the people on reality TV, whether that’s the real housewives or Kim Kardashian or whoever. I had always liked the shows, but as I worked on the book my sense of empathy for the people on them grew. I also noticed more of the periphery, connecting with the characters who were “on the side” and even with the environment.

My first book, The Ravenous Audience, wasn’t based on transcription, but it was still a transformative experience for me to create that book. I was working through these myths I’d ingested as a child, from fairy tales to biblical stories to American archetypal characters like Marilyn Monroe and Amelia Earhart. I lost my religious faith while writing that book, but I gained a spirituality that was my own.

I’m not sure I would say all or most literature is like a reality show, but I do like to call E! literary television, since the idea is that you are reading television, as opposed to just (passively) watching it.

If you were asked to curate something that celebrated the intersection between fashion and poetry, what would it be and who would be involved? It could be an exhibit, a movie, a piece of writing, a spring line — anything you might dream up and of course, for the sake of this question, money is no object. Also, who are your favorite fashion icons?

I like to think of fashion as poetry worn on the body, so I think for me the mediums aren’t separate. I like to play with text on the body sometimes, and of course branding. It could be beautiful to have the poets wear outfits inspired by their texts. Years ago I made a series of hats for the Les Figues press writers, based on their books. I was inspired by Hannah Weiner’s poetry fashion event.

As for fashion icons, right now I like Ana Mendieta very much. I like how she merged with the landscape. Ariel from The Little Mermaid has also been inspiring me lately. I’m really into shell bras.

LA is such an inspirational landscape for so many writers. (I know that I will never seem to get over the existence of palm trees.) How does the landscape of LA fit into your work? Do other landscapes (physical, emotional, imaginative) sneak into your work as well?

I am in a long-term committed relationship to Los Angeles; she is my lover and muse. As I write this, I’m flying back to Los Angeles from Denver while wearing a sweatshirt covered in the beaches of Southern California. One of the things I love about LA is that is it a very honest city — it doesn’t pretend that its facades are anything more than constructions, and the darkness at its heart is the void of the world. Swimming pools and hotels are two spaces that make me think of LA, and those are both voids. LA is the place where the collective fantasies of the world take form. I feel that to live here is to participate in that process, and also to transmute and shift it, as an artist.

It’s also a beautiful and lonely place, and I can relate to both those feelings very much in my life lately.

If you could spend a day with Kim Kardashian, what would you do with her?

Take selfies!


Dorothea Lasky is an American poet. 

LARB Contributor

Dorothea Lasky the author of four books, most recently ROME (Liveright/W.W. Norton). She is currently an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University's School of the Arts and lives in New York City.


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