Extremes of Disorder
Wayne Koestenbaum, the poet and cultural critic, had a relatively normal childhood, but he was not a normal child. He remembers lying in his bed in San Jose, California, trying to divine his bedroom wall’s white plaster. There were lumps—too many lumps! “This primal scene of staring—of confused beholding,” he told The White Review, “is the origin of my interest in abstract art and in difficult (or enigmatic) literature.” In fourth grade, he began playing the trumpet; by middle school, he realized he was never going to be any good. It was the first time he experienced the Miltonian “theme of downfall.” In seventh grade, he masturbated for so long that his penis swelled, and he had to skip school—“lest I reveal, in P.E., my deformity.” And, at San Jose State University, where his father taught philosophy, he was cast as an extra in The Music Man. He didn’t have a line, just one bit of acting: to tug the mayor’s coattails. “I tugged on them. A tiny apprenticeship in staged effrontery?” he now wonders.
Koestenbaum is radically friendly. The first time we talk on the phone, I’m in Paris, and he’s in New York. (“Wow, Paris!” And “Your last name; it’s multivalent!?”) What’s funny is that for someone who’s lived one of the most cosmopolitan lives imaginable—New York City poet, prize-winning performer, public intellectual, pianist, painter, and supporter of emerging writers and artists—Koestenbaum also admits that he’s ultimately provincial. “I’m that kind of American,” he says.
His subjects, however, are neither friendly nor provincial. Perverse, bizarre, dredged from the darkest depths of the subconscious—these are far better descriptions for Koestenbaum’s eight collections of poetry, nine volumes of cultural criticism, two works of fiction, and an opera libretto inspired by Jackie Kennedy. “My material—in any project: essay, nonfiction, whatever—is always very raw. I tend to produce very quickly and somewhat fluently but quite messily,” he tells me. “It allows me the extremes of disorder that I need to function, and when I say I need ‘extremes of disorder,’ I mean, my material itself—my topics are unruly.”
For instance, are all the dead babies in his latest book, Camp Marmalade, meant to be funny? “Well, how are they being presented?” Koestenbaum might ask. “Do they show up in a stretch of prose? In a poem? If so, what kind of poem? A haiku? A sonnet?” Koestenbaum doesn’t necessarily think dead babies are funny per se, but he knows that subconscious interests and desires—the way people feel toward certain images and ideas—merit exploration.
“I dropped out of a workshop ’cause after the first or second meeting, when I wrote a sonnet that had a dead baby in it, at least a couple of people in the workshop were really angry at the poem—and at me for treating it as funny,” he tells me. “And it wasn't funny. It was just in a sonnet. And the sonnet, because of its rules and its tidiness, makes its material funny. I learned a long time ago as a writer that the more orderly and anal you are in your technique, the more ironic your subjects become.” (In Camp Marmalade, he reflects on this, writing, “they hated my poem about / a dead baby // dead babies / in sonnets aren’t funny // I never said dead / babies were funny.”)
Koestenbaum often presents his favored themes of death, humiliation, Jewish diaspora, and queer theory ironically, but he approaches them in earnest. They’re themes scraped out of his psyche. “I’m a Neo-Freudian,” he says. “I’m on an indefatigable quest for the earlier, the prehistoric, the ruins beneath Rome. [Freud] very explicitly made an analogy between archaeological excavations and personal excavations.”
Camp Marmalade is the second book in a trilogy that began with The Pink Trance Notebooks (2015). The volume is organized into 40 sections, but it’s basically a singular unit. Readers are propelled by the fluidity of its fragments. Themes, motifs, and inside jokes reverberate between sections, and the cheeky, adage-y style remains consistent throughout.
“I want a speediness of association and a promiscuity of allusiveness,” Koestenbaum says. “It’s a way of trying to be more exciting and more accurate about the ideas and emotions, not a way of running away from them.”
This energetic expressiveness is the hallmark of what he calls “trance writing,” which constitutes the current trilogy. In Koestenbaum’s trance state, he writes longhand in notebooks, without a plan, putting on paper anything that comes to mind. “I long habituated myself to delving, to pushing myself into my fantasies and dreams and going to a place where I don't even feel responsible for what I'm saying,” he tells me. Had he been a contemporary of the surrealist André Breton, he probably would have called the technique automatism. Every two months, he types up his notebooks and looks through the text to see what has preoccupied him most. What recurs? What’s on his subconscious mind?
In Camp Marmalade, death is clearly nagging at him:
he rejects me
like a dead body
rejecting air and earth—
you say my psychiatrist
died, smile whenever you
mention a friend’s death,
invert the emotion
while we’re on the subject
emerging nudism bops me
on the head, not far
from dad fingerprints
massage parlor became
dead haircutter’s echo salon—
did echo salon always
carry imminent death taint?
“When I'm in trance writing, I'm really making things up based on association and words,” he says. “I'm playing between syllables and words and really letting linguistic play direct the content. I'm often amazed at how nightmarish the places are that language leads me to, and I tip that as a kind of evidence not just about myself—though it’s clearly about myself—but also about what I like to call my ‘linguist unconscious.’ When I push my language, it does reveal things about myself.”
Koestenbaum says that corpses are the underlying leitmotif of the book. His Jewish father—the philosophy professor—survived Nazi Germany, and that fact has haunted Koestenbaum’s subconscious (“a post-trauma transference”). But he hadn’t been aware of how much that history informed his thinking until he began editing Camp Marmalade, a superficially messy but deeply organized process in which themes emerge and language is sheared to its essentials.
Koestenbaum usually spends about a year writing the first draft of these trance books in longhand and then types them up without revision. “I look at the whole thing, and I start to map out what interests me, what doesn't interest me; then I keep producing a further and further distilled text, and quite quickly within that process I've broken the text into stanzas, and into these, what I call the little three- to five-line little bits,” he says. He organizes the stanzas into different notebooks while trying to keep them all more or less the same length. Throughout, he asks himself, “what justifies the existence of this notebook as a separate entity?”
Personal history is transmitted through language accessed only in the trance state. “Forms of the dead that are part of my father's experience with his childhood are transmitted to me through, let's just say, fantasies of dead babies,” he says. “So, I say to myself, ‘Why is there a dead baby in my poem?’ I don't know. Am I dead? Am I the dead baby? Is my father the dead baby? I start to wonder about the historical resonance of both.”
“I'm figuring out what turns me on,” he adds, “and what disgusts me.”
Camp Marmalade is also a book about gay experience and the psychodrama of the English language. But almost all of this meaning is buried beneath the text. The pleasure of reading Koestenbaum’s poetry is in figuring out what’s on his mind as he figures it out himself. It’s the rare chance to watch a mind work in real time.
“The thing about chromaticism is that it proceeds by local associations,” says Jeff Dolven, a poet, a critic, and an English professor at Princeton University, referring to the musical composition technique in which a sequence of natural notes (e.g., F-G-A-B) are interspersed and alternated, “but what is next to what in the mind turns out to be surprising, revelatory, embarrassing, exciting. The book’s great leaps are made by taking small steps in forbidden directions.”
Consider, for instance, these lines from Camp Marmalade:
go backward and
diaper the diagram,
fossilize it, compote it
Diaper can refer to Koestenbaum’s childhood, his infancy, or the Freudian oral or anal stages. The repeated d-i-a in diaper and diagram further underscores these Freudian stages and desire for simplicity and repetition. Fossilize brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of “fossil poetry.” (“The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture,” Emerson writes in The Poet. “Language is fossil poetry.”) And compote evokes not only the marmalade of the book’s title but also the process of psychological distillation that encapsulates Koestenbaum’s entire trance series.
Or consider these lines, also from Camp Marmalade:
my “mental weather” (her
phrase) and also
tempests not my own
to be fond of corpses or
comfortable with corpses.
Mental weather is a phrase Susan Sontag (“her phrase”) used to describe the Swiss writer Robert Walser. (“The variety of mental weather in Walser’s stories and sketches, their elegance and their unpredictable lengths remind me of the free, first-person forms that abound in classical Japanese literature: pillow book, poetic diary, ‘essays in idleness,’” she writes in her foreword to Walser’s The Walk.) But Koestenbaum is also interested in the mental weather of language, that is, how language itself shifts based on a mood or a temporary feeling. Fond of corpses and comfortable with corpses show at once an interest in corpses as an abstract idea and an interest in a specific corpse (or set of corpses) as a symbol of individual, ancestral trauma, probably related to his father.
“Language is leading me to suggest a process of internal investigation,” he says. “That leads to understrata of history or of language itself.”
After graduating from high school in San Jose, Koestenbaum went to Harvard, where he became enamored of the New York School. “That seemed like my discovery. I was right away trying to figure out how to use that knowledge in my writing.”
In an essayistic poem titled “‘Oh! Kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!’: Frank O’Hara’s Excitement,” Koestenbaum unpacks what it is about New York School poets like O’Hara that intrigues him so much. “A Frank O’Hara poem begins with a bang,” he writes. “That bang—that crash of self-announcement (“I’m here!”)—may be followed by some whimpers, some lists, further bangs, and then an instantaneous disappearance.” That immediacy, Koestenebaum adds, “resembles orgasm’s erasure of past and future ... [O’Hara] is aware that beautiful (or faux-beautiful) things fall away from him, detach themselves, refuse his embrace.”
Of the New York School poet and critic James Schuyler, Koestenbaum writes, “Schuyler loves the marmoreal possibilities of the instantaneous, the slow duration of the nothing-in-particular.”
What grabbed Koestenbaum about the New York School writers and critics was their capacity to momentarily detach from themselves. Both O’Hara and Schuyler were able to simultaneously be in touch with their emotions and lay them objectively at the feet of readers—they could enter and exit a trance. The combination allows for a shock of passion followed by coolness—“further bangs, and then an instantaneous disappearance,” as Koestenbaum writes.
The effect is similar to how Koestenbaum felt the first time he saw a Mark Rothko painting while an undergraduate at Harvard. He was floored. “I felt the color vibrations,” he says. The abstraction pushed him to another headspace, and he decided he wanted to achieve the same kind of visceral immediacy in his writing without being anti-referential or entirely abstract—a new New York School.
Koestenbaum started writing professionally in the late 1980s, when he was almost 30. His work flew mostly under the radar until 1993, when he published The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, a genre-defying book of criticism and autobiography that analyzes why gay men tend to enjoy the opera. It’s now considered a classic investigation of gender theory.
“There was something extraordinarily affirming in reading this book that was so brilliant, so intellectually vivid and dense and alive,” says novelist Garth Greenwell. “It asserted so intensely the value of this queer aesthetic tradition of art-making and even more of art connoisseurship.” Greenwell studied opera himself and writes frequently about LGBTQ issues. He calls The Queen’s Throat the kind of book—and Koestenbaum the kind of writer—that deserves a place next to other landmarks of contemporary queer literature such as James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Edmund White’s A Boy's Own Story.
The Queen’s Throat helped Koestenbaum win a Whiting Award in 1994 and put him on the literary map as a unique critic of queerness and sexuality. But though sexuality colors his every work, Koestenbaum handles it unlike other well-known queer philosophers. Whereas Michel Foucault, for instance, was interested in how sexuality relates to power and selfhood, Koestenbaum is interested in how sexuality relates to self-expression—the words we use, the thoughts we have, the fundamental ways in which we perceive the world.
“Sexuality connects to everything,” he says, “especially to modes of expressivity and culture. There's no singing without sexuality. There's no sentence without sexuality. My sense of eroticism, which is such a determining and navigational sense, directs the movement of my vehicle, my cognition. I listen very closely to the erotic navigational devices in my body and in my spirit.”
Before the trance trilogy, he wrote books that sought to make a point about a particular person or idea. Humiliation (2011), for example, is about vulnerability and mortification throughout history. The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (2012) is about the physical movements of the famously gender-bending comedian. These books investigate what Koestenbaum calls “the high/low binary.” They’re neither academic nor popular but an oscillation between—and a weighing of—the two. As he explains, “I was setting out to say something as clearly as possible about an art form, a subculture, even at the risk of forcing some connections—trying to say things that I hadn't heard said.”
In his current trance trilogy, however, he has stopped writing to explain or to make a point. Instead, he lets his mind explore. It’s up to readers to suss out how he feels about the relationship between sex and love, interior versus exterior life, the degradation and the fetishization of bodies, existence versus non-existence (“a fake Ravel sonata is better than no Ravel”) et cetera. But readers can also enjoy the text as a purely aesthetic pleasure.
What Koestenbaum has achieved, perhaps better than any other contemporary poet, is linguistic fecundity combined with hyper-fastidiousness. Words seem to fall out of his mind and through his pen at breakneck speed without undermining the deeper aesthetic experience. He pays meticulous attention to diction and content and to details as poetically specific as a word’s fricatives. If you read aloud, for instance, “his ekphrastic fixation / caused invisibility / to descend like a monsoon / over his tricks and milk” in Camp Marmalade, you can hear the breath of the words slipping through your teeth. Ek-phras-tic fix-a-tion. Tr-icks and milk. These are not words that tumbled straight from his mind; they’re pruned from a larger mass, chosen specifically for how readers will experience them. He doesn’t call any of this—or even his larger outlook—“aestheticism,” in the sense of an Oscar Wildean, 19th-century, European historical movement. Rather, he says, he maintains an outlook of sensitivity and openness. He has come full circle to his Harvard days and to his initial interest in the linguistic abstraction the New York School inspired.
That openness sometimes makes for difficult reading in Camp Marmalade. For instance,
a Jew named Heidi
of Sunnybrook Farm
gobbled up white
bread and vomited it
in pellets to feed
teacher who molested
is he the little boy I abused
in the dream? wrung him
dry by massaging
him for pleasure I knew
how to give easily
I realize that my father is
the only one with the strength
and commitment to change her,
but it will be traumatic for him
to see her buttocks and genitals
because she is his dead
But the mind is a disturbing place, and Koestenbaum never strives for pure provocation. Indeed, the word pervert is sacred to him. To care about language at all is a perverse act; a close read is a perverted read. To write is to dive into perversion because putting ideas down on paper necessarily distorts them.
At 59 years old, Koestenbaum isn’t likely to be feted as a “writer to watch” or rediscovered for the talents that he’s long possessed. But he’s not interested in fame anyway. He remains a Renaissance man. He plays piano gigs around New York City, sometimes throughout the United States, and often combines them with poetry readings, as when he played a repertoire of Chopin, Schumann, Fauré, Milhaud, Antheil, Poulenc, Diamond, and Persichetti at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis while spontaneously performing partially sung soliloquies in the German Sprechstimme style of expressionism. More recently, he performed a piano-poetry session at the Kitchen, a performing arts space in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
He has been painting in a semi-professional capacity as well, debuting his visual art in 2012 at White Columns, an alternative gallery space in New York’s Meatpacking District. He has also exhibited at the University of Kentucky and at the recently closed 356 Mission gallery in Los Angeles.
These various media intersect and inform each other in Koestenbaum’s work, specifically in his latest poetry. “As I read the new books,” Dolven says, “I feel like I am under the influence of Wayne’s piano playing—particularly his Sprechstimme renderings of chromatic repertory by Debussy and others.”
In regard to his painting, Koestenbaum says the process creates an “unadulterated, shocking pleasure” that reminds him of what it's like “to be absolutely absorbed by one's aesthetic process.” He calls the trance trilogy a “direct product of experience in the studio as a painter in its speed, in a certain kind of confidence, and a willingness to tolerate mess.”
Maggie Nelson, the sui generis poet, critic, and professor, is a former student of Koestenbaum’s. She tells me that he “is a figure of this time, but he also is a writer and thinker for all time. His career streaks above this genre-obsessed, professionalized-writer moment, and corresponds instead to the history of the polymath, the public intellectual, the drifter, the infinite conversationalist.”
If one asked “what is the point of poetry?” there would be an infinite number of answers. But Koestenbaum’s most recent trance books offer a particularly compelling response: poetry is about facing what you don’t want to face and what you’ve always wanted to face at the same time. It’s about amplifying the truths you’ve always known even when you’ve never given them a second thought. Beauty is terror; terror is beauty. The psyche is dangerous terrain, and Koestenbaum is, among all his other accolades, an exceptionally brave explorer.