Wayne Koestenbaum discusses Pink Trance Notebooks with Brooklyn Rail
On September 21st at The Kitchen, Wayne Koestenbaum performed a suite of trance-like Sprechstimme improvisations at the piano to mark the publication of his new book, The Pink Trance Notebooks, a series of poems assembled from a yearlong experiment in journaling (Nightboat, 2015). In the most rousing of these songs, Koestenbaum intoned praise for having his tubes tied at Duane Reade—all set to a piece by Chopin. The week before this performance, Koestenbaum, whose seventeen other books include volumes of criticism, poetry, and a novel, sat down with Phillip Griffith in his Chelsea studio to discuss poetry and painting, trance, the French language, and “fag ideation.”
Phillip Griffith (Rail): I thought we’d start with the titles of these poems. You title each poem Trance Notebook, give each a number in the series, and then another title in brackets. You pluck that bracketed title from one of the fragments that make up the poem. How did you make the decisions for those titles? Did it have to do with how you composed the poems?
Wayne Koestenbaum: The decision-making process was similar to most of the titling I do. The title comes after, from scanning the section and trying to choose something that sounds nice by itself, and that seems symbolic or allegorical enough that it opens out toward something else. Sometimes, as with my book Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background, that phrase doesn’t appear in the book at all, but the painting I chose for the cover is called Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background. As for the Trance Notebooks’s bracketed subtitles, I simply chose a phrase that seemed allegorical.
Rail: Did you write these poems in a trance?
Koestenbaum: It would be lovely to invent a whole fiction that I could spin via the Brooklyn Rail. When I speak to the newspaper of record, what account shall I give of my composition? The word “trance” came to me before I wrote most of what became the The Pink Trance Notebooks. When I set out that very first day, beginning them, I didn’t say, “Now I’m going to do trance notebooks.” But it came to me pretty quickly that I would be operating in these notebooks with an unusual lack of premeditation, lack of intention—and a corresponding abundance of physical freedom of movement. The notebooks were handwritten, and written as quickly as I could. What made the process trance-like was that in the drafts of the raw material, there’s really no punctuation except for commas. There’s not much punctuation in the final version, either, but in the original drafts, there were no interruptions, no pauses, nothing stanzaic in the least. It was pure torrent. I used small Moleskine notebooks and I’d write somewhat large, so there would be about five words per line. I used that line length as a kind of arbitrary measure, as a visual measure rather than a sonic or syllabic one. The process was trance-like because I often didn’t know what I was thinking, saying, or doing. And, since I spent so much time drawing and painting, I tried to find a way to make handwriting as much of a sport as possible. I tried to reinvent my handwriting. I tried to reinvent my arm and shoulder position, to think about how I could write so that it would physically feel like sketching—lines, or semantic lines in poetry, with abstract or other kinds of graphic lines.