Interviews

Wayne Koestenbaum

The polymathic artist on his creative process

Brandon Menke

Wayne Koestenbaum’s nimble, roving intelligence animates everything he makes, from poems and paintings to piano improvisations and films. His poetry and prose teem with cultural references; whether he is diagnosing Hart Crane’s gorgeousness or Debbie Harry’s usurpation by Madonna, he approaches his subjects with analytical incisiveness and striking candor. I love the feeling I get navigating his swells of allusion, finding myself aswoon from what Koestenbaum calls the “vertigo of too many nuances.”

This complexity is not incidental to Koestenbaum’s work. As he writes in Ultramarine, his twenty-second book, released in February: “difficulty and illegibility / erase the ache.” Yet, ever the thoughtful chaperone, he also offers his readers pragmatic advice: “choose the nuances you love / and settle down with them.” This spirit of generosity suffuses the forty-eight “notebooks” that comprise Ultramarine, whose diaristic lines and uncanny excurses create a self-portrait of the artist’s subconscious. The final volume of his “trance trilogy”—preceded by The Pink Trance Notebooks (2015) and Camp Marmalade (2018)—the collection is both a joyful language game and a bracing reminder that queer play is serious business.

Koestenbaum and I corresponded over email this winter about John Ashbery, “fag ideation,” and what it means to write from the wreckage of language. Our exchange has been edited and condensed.

— Brandon Menke


Brandon Menke Your artistic practice is notably protean; you express yourself across a panoply of forms and genres—poetry, painting, essay, film, fable, novel, libretto. Given your vast repertoire, how do you know which form is the most suitable for a given idea?

Wayne Koestenbaum Different occasions and locales and requirements produce different impulses and lead me to embrace different media. If I’m in the process of painting—surrounded, in my studio, by art-making materials—then my idea will express itself in painting, or drawing, or collaging, or visually speculating. But as I’m sedulously making marks with acrylic and brush on canvas paper, suddenly I’ll become so riveted by the network of lines and creases on a paper bag crumpled on my desk that I’ll want to draw that fretwork, or at least let the paper bag lead me somewhere I hadn’t intended to go. I might step away from the painting I’m working on and start filming the bag.

Or I may be making a thirty-second film, and it needs a soundtrack. I will dictate an improvised monologue on my iPhone and then transcribe it, and then revise it, and then record it again, and then edit the recording into a soundtrack. Then, days later, I will find the typescript of that monologue and begin revising it into a poem. The monologue might already have been implicitly a poem, but it wasn’t entirely a poem. Now I want to push the casual words toward poem-solidity.

BM I love this peek into the processes of your atelier. What are you working on at the moment?

WK I recently completed a manuscript of quasi-sonnets—I call it The Language Glove—that I composed by accreting short phrases and sentences composed on the go (some of them dictated into my phone while walking) and then squeezing the phrases and sentences into receptacles of fourteen lines, each of the lines spawning micro-lines, bob-and-wheel style. I kept this peripatetic diary for a year—grateful, each day, if I could come up with a sentence to shove into my language glove, a container that seemed to redeem any day on which I could find a phrase to feed the demanding sonnet-maw.

I’ve also recently written essays (appreciations, homages, odes) for artists such as Alex Katz, Polly Apfelbaum, Elliott Green, and Walter Pfeiffer; each one of these ekphrases takes the form I made up for that specific occasion. For Pfeiffer I wrote a didactic playlet in two voices—a photographer and a critic. For Apfelbaum I wrote an ode—sentences, separated from each other by spaces, in a New Narrative / New Sentence style—in which I sometimes addressed Apfelbaum, sometimes her art, sometimes Walt Whitman. . . .

BM I’m sensing a relationship between this peripatetic mode of composition and the way your essays and poems travel within and between genres. How central is this freedom of movement to your work?

WK I’m making it seem that I don’t operate within the restrictions of genre or subject matter, that I simply wander wherever I please. But that’s not precisely true. Indeed, I want to behave like my favorite of John Ashbery’s protean long poems, Flow Chart (1991), but in fact I know that sometimes I am simply writing a letter of recommendation, a short poem, or an essay for an artist’s catalogue.

Today I will play Haydn and Scarlatti sonatas and perhaps start half-speaking and half-singing a narration (Sprechstimme, the mode of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire) along with the melodies, if the melodies are below middle C on the keyboard. If I like the way the Sprechstimme story is going, I’ll turn on my recording device, with the hope that I could use a minute of this improvisation as a movie soundtrack, or at least to make me feel I’m not wasting my life.

I wasn’t just fooling around, though I hope it will be also acceptable to the muses and the judges that merely fooling around is no crime.

BM I’m struck by how Ashbery in Flow Chart figures as a beau idéal for you. I think of this passage from the book’s third section, which you recently recorded for the #CollectiveAshbery project on Twitter: “the development was muted, then fudged; but one had been warned to play / within the enclosure on the off chance that something slightly singular would occur.” What kind of model does the book provide, with its fudged developments and singular play?

WK “Fudged” is a perfect Ashbery word: its commonness, filth, and quaintness. Its “u” takes on the “u” of the preceding “muted,” and deepens—lengthens the “u” into a more vulgar sound—what goes by the name of bassesse (lowness), a word that Rosalind Krauss took from Georges Bataille and made the most of. In composing the trance trilogy, I was aiming for detours into bassesse, too—or, rather, I accepted the eruptions of bassesse whenever I was lucky enough to receive their calling card. Bataille, writes Krauss, “insisted that the job of informe is to ‘bring things down in the world.’” Like Andy Warhol’s happy notion of downgrading as a source of joy (to de-skill is to escalate pleasure), I made it my business in Ultramarine not to court the low—not to dive for it, make a case for it, cop a feel from it—but to permit it, and not excise it. I generated much more material, in drafting Ultramarine, than I ended up keeping in the finished book, but I confess that I tended to retain, and not omit, the passages that go the route of the “fudged”: incest and micturation and other tricky issues.

Flow Chart, yes, is the book for me, the role-model text, the prod, the muse, the gate, along with Friederike Mayröcker's brütt, or The Sighing Gardens (1998) and all of Gertrude Stein. Paul Celan, too. In reading the final proofs of Ultramarine, I suddenly understood that the book’s secret strategy, somewhat unconscious, had been to merge some of the methods of Stein and Celan as a way of articulating (or demonstrating, or suffering) the effect of atrocity on language. I know that sounds very big, very unearned, but I think I found myself cruising different languages, in Ultramarine, and moving toward weirder, jammier condensations, kennings, coinages, and portmanteaus as a way to make Celan and Stein come to terms with each other, befriend each other, meet somewhere in the middle. It was as if I were behaving as posthumous middleman, in Paris, bridging these two Jews who underwent, in their different ways, in their bodies, the wreckage of language. That’s another way of saying that in composing the trance trilogy I wasn’t just fooling around, though I hope it will be also acceptable to the muses and the judges that merely fooling around is no crime, no stain on the conscience.

BM That’s very clarifying: atrocity eviscerates language—wrecks its guts, to use a base phrase—and bassesse is one possible secretion to emerge from the wound. Peril is sown into the endeavor, but there’s also possibility and pleasure. In my mind, this relates to the concept of “fag ideation,” introduced in The Pink Trance Notebooks, which illuminates how queerness can lubricate language and loosen the grasp of normative logic. How does Ultramarine extend from or complicate the notion of “fag ideation”?

WK “Ideation” is a fancy, difficult word, a psychological word. I have a fondness for the “-tion” family, to my detriment. Cognition, ideation, instrumentalization, compartmentalization, fragmentation, juxtaposition, diction, precision, humiliation, commiseration, anticipation, ossification, reification, scarification.

Not much “fag” in that list. “Fag” is a difficult word, too. A word we should avoid. But it’s so sweetly monosyllabic, so Eliotic, so almost palindromic—fag gaffe—that I fall into its clutches frequently. James Bidgood, creator of the marvelous 1971 film, Pink Narcissus (wrongly called “campy” in his New York Times obituary), practiced fag ideation by channeling porn topoi and methods into a “higher” stratum of picture-making, only slightly above that of porn. (Though of course porn is already plenty “high,” a form of hallucinating without the aid of substances.) If the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Bidgood had collaborated on a film about the phenomenology of gay male daily fantasy, they might have produced Pink Narcissus. And so they did. If you fold Merleau-Ponty into the “author effect” of Bidgood, you get a cinéaste producing fag ideation.

Wayne Koestenbaum, The Rearranged Decade (2011-2019).

BM Fag ideation allows you to link together queer experiences and queer feelings across great gulfs of time and distance. It transports you and your reader to somewhere beyond the commonplace—is that right?

WK Fag ideation, yes, carries me to France; whenever Jean Genet stops being literal, he enters the precincts of fag ideation. Fag ideation permeates Ultramarine because it employs language spill—words spilling into each other, contaminating each other—to produce, in the form of serial poetry, a version of what cross-hatching creates in drawing: shadow, volume, perspective, depth. I demonstrate my ideas and my memories and my images not just by denoting them, describing them, evoking them; I demonstrate my “material” by cross-hatching language, interfering with its transparency by condensing it, splicing it, fragmenting it, discombobulating it. I know that sounds like a generic description of any contemporary poetic project. Let’s hope that, on the wings of fag ideation, I give a pink—or ultramarine—spin of my own to this collective project, yours and mine and ours, of persuading words that they should be ashamed of themselves for being so tasty, so multivalent, and sometimes so ordinary. Is it a species of fag ideation when I mention a “Hostess apple turnover”? Is it fag ideation when I say “long ago I asked / ‘is Lana Turner a monad’?” Or: “Molotov cocktail / in the key of / Dorian Gray”?

BM Your books empower the reader to flex new muscles, offering creative prompts and moments of gentle instruction (“The object . . . must provide / concrete lines and curves to mimic”) even as they depict you as a student “searching for a teacher / (aware that no / teacher will suffice).” How do your roles as instructor and artist intermingle?

WK Today I’m teaching (in a seminar on the essay film) Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), three short films by Ja’Tovia Gary, Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967), and Theodor Adorno’s essay, “The Essay as Form.” Mostly I’m eager to hear what the participants in the seminar will say about this bundle of cinematic goodies. In Ultramarine I’m a student of my own language and the language I find on the wayside. Somewhere in the Venn-diagram overlap of my language and the wayside language is the “teeming brain” (Keats) of a linguistic consciousness always waiting to be gleaned, always gleaned already by other poets, always waiting for the buckets and spoons and tongues and habitats of other gleaners, acolyte gleaners, fatigued gleaners, ever-awake gleaners.

Last week in the essay-film seminar I taught (“taught” and “I” are both up for grabs—i.e., contestable, risible, spoof-able) Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000), Jacquot de Nantes (1991), which is about her husband Jacques Demy’s childhood, and her documentary short Black Panthers (1968). Nowhere in the cinematic or literary universe can I find a rendering of my own childhood dreams more exact than Varda’s tribute to her late husband’s precocious cinephilia—cinephilia in a void—a child upstairs in the attic making animation films long before he had any practical reason to imagine he could become a filmmaker.

Where is pedagogy in this mélange I’m making for you this morning, Brandon? Through teaching, I find the impetus to love more strongly the artistic impulses that I already love, yearnings enshrined in Schneemann’s Fuses, for example: the will to self-document, the wish to estrange certainty by filming it and thereby “ruining” it (to ruin certainty is to make it more beautiful and striated with complications), the hope that—by deciding to write down this instant the strange configurations that this instant is taking on—we can striate the instant, millefeuille the instant. Can I make “millefeuille” a verb? Picking up a camera or proposing to write down the unspooling, “teeming” river of what is now occurring (which is to say, not what really is occurring, but what words are erupting in tribute or response to the instant’s figments) seem instructive ways of making do, bearing witness, even if in a crabby mood or a state of blur and indecision, to the words arising from that blur: words I’ll later try to make clear. Ultramarine never quite clears up the blur. Clearing things up isn’t my métier. But I like to make the blur as punctual and concrete and festive as possible.

Brandon Menke is a poet and a PhD candidate in English at Yale, where he writes about queer expressivity, regionalist aesthetics, and lyric form in American literature and visual art. He is an assistant editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
April 4, 2022

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