Poetry News

In Conversation: Kate Durbin & Kate Zambreno Trust Their Art

By Harriet Staff

Over at the newish HER KIND, (recently talked about here) our favorite Kates (sorry, whoever we are forgetting for purposes of writing about this) "channel the howl." Kate Durbin and Kate Zambreno talk about the MFA v. PhD for job-seeking (how about organic salmon farming? no?); Durbin's writing about The Hills (not to be confused with Hills, the fantastic Langpo-era journal); Virginia Woolf, and criticism and poetry. Zambreno did some Facebook crowd-sourcing, posting a status update that asked her friends whither program. She writes:

But that fear of being disciplined or confined is exactly the reason I am probably not meant for the institution, Kate (I have always had a fear of being institutionalized!). I honestly don’t think I would have written O Fallen Angel or Green Girl or certainly Heroines within a workshop or dissertation setting. I can’t imagine trying to explain to anyone else but people who love me and who I trust what I’m working on now—for example my hidden girl novel, certainly can’t imagine having to conform it or discipline it for a person in a place of power over me. I imagine getting an MFA in poetry is different—or I don’t know. But I taught for one semester at an MFA program—and the focus seemed to be on character and plot and all of these traditional elements I’m not really interested in. I’m interested in excess. I’m interested in texts that are monsters. I’m interested in breaking something with my writing and playing with new forms, in engaging with and sometimes alienating the reader—I know we share that in common, Kate. With a Ph.D. as well, which is the possibility I more seriously consider, I would be afraid more than anything of changing my language. I love to read theory voluptuously and bodily, but I would hate to use this programmed language, their language. I think we are theorists in our own right, illegitimate theorists, philosophers of girls and bodies and the Internet.

In terms of the experience of having Green Girl enter the mainstream, I don’t think it was necessarily all bad, or in reality it was a learning experience. Experimental novels tend not to be received well by a reading public-at-large, which often wants something different out of their reading experience. I realized I need to try not to be infected by other people’s opinions of my writing, a protectiveness I feel, say, with not believing countless editors or agents who rejected Green Girl, or realizing I have a singular vision that I wouldn’t want to defend in workshop, but that I don’t yet feel on the Internet. In some ways I am very interested in the performance of vulnerability and doubt, of public transgressions, of crossing boundaries.

I think it’s very important how both of us have become critics, partially in a way to defend our projects—this is what fucking T.S. Eliot did, why can’t we? I am really interested in how female artists are often portrayed as unserious—remember that jackass Kate who didn’t realize that the title of your book The Fashion Issue was taken from Barthes, suggesting to me to suggest to you to read Barthes? I hate that. It’s so masculine. I think people look at our project and don’t realize, yes, we have read others’ theories, and we are also using our own theory. I think for poetry conceptual writing can seem so masculine to me—and you’re subverting that, you’re also problematizing what can be the subject of literature, the subject of important inquiry. . . .

Durbin responds just as kindly and admiringly to Zambreno...

For the Gaga book, I am writing a piece that talks about Marina Abromovic and Gaga, in part. There was this interview Gaga did with SHOWSTUDIO, wherein Marina Abramovic called in—many celebs called in. Abramovic asked Gaga the question: “Who creates limits?” Gaga answered, “We do,” and then she said to the interviewer: “You see how simple her [Abramovic's] question was? That’s because she’s fucking free.” The interviewer asked Gaga to explain, and she said, after gushing about seeing “The Artist is Present” in NYC, and gushing about “Rhythm O,” Abramovic’s famous performance wherein she let the audience abuse her, almost to the point of death, without surrendering or bowing her head: “That bitch trusts herself, and she trusts her art.”

To me, to be a woman, an artist, and to be free, the bitch has to trust herself, has to trust her art.

That could look like different things to many people, but for me, lately, that looks like two letters: NO. No to anything that feels wrong in my gut, no to reading bad reviews, no to compromising my vision, no, even, to “accepting” a life of poverty just because I am an artist. I am saying no to those things. Not “no” for the sake of no— no for the sake of my YES. I am saying YES to trusting my art, for continuing to believe in and work for a better world, wherein women and girls can make a success of their life and art, no matter who in the audience is holding a gun (that can be interpreted in various ways, used as a metaphor for any number of financial and other restrictions). Because— as that performance of Abramovic’s exemplifies, to me at least— no one can take away your trust in yourself and your work, if you refuse to let them, if you won’t bow your head.
I love you and admire you and your work tremendously— it has given me freedom. . . .

A worthwhile read for those of us interested in what lies beyond genre--thanks to the Kates. Read it all here.

Originally Published: July 11th, 2012