In Fall 2014, I was Wayne Koestenbaum’s student in the MFA program at Columbia University, where he taught a seminar focusing on notebooks by writers such as Susan Sontag, Clarice Lispector, and Hervé Guibert. My reading of his new book, The Pink Trance Notebooks, spread many of the freedoms I enjoyed as his student further into excitable and mysterious space, as I worked to combine and accompany my poetic practice with the energies of newer literatures. It was exactly Wayne’s inclusiveness and submersion in the solar system of pleasurable syntaxes—such an element of his weekly inspiration as a teacher—that drove me to ask for some of his time to talk. We met in September at his Chelsea studio, an uptown-facing, sun-flooded room more than a dozen stories high. When he’s not writing or teaching, he goes there to paint.
Michael Juliani: There’s something almost cinematic about an in-between form where everything can collapse. The cinematic shadow is what’s interesting to me. I find myself speaking a lot in abstractions when it comes to my own practice. Do you find yourself having to do a lot of explaining when it comes to the form of The Pink Trance Notebooks?
Wayne Koestenbaum: Since it’s not officially out yet, I haven’t had to do very much explaining. I’ve given a lot of readings from it over the last year, so a description has evolved. It usually includes some statement about its prosody, about what I mean by trance, and about the project’s relation to my former diary. I don’t understand myself the dimensions of the book or how it would strike somebody else because I know too much of its history, line by line, the palimpsest of its layers I’m totally aware of, and its relationship to my earlier work. I have a lot of really abstract ideas about literature and my process, filled with lineages that I could explicitly plot out, but when it comes to the meager things I’ve actually produced, they don’t ever match up to my grand abstractions. I wish to buttress my meager works with the lofty lineages in which I think they belong. I wrote the books as a response to inspiration from those lineages. So I could talk about Artaud and Stein, but if somebody reads my book, are Artaud or Stein evident? Probably not. I feel like the inheritor of Stein and Artaud. But I’m not.
MJ: It’s your reading of Stein and Artaud.
MJ: And that’s why it’s thrilling to be a writer.
WK: Right. That’s why it’s thrilling to be a writer, or to be any kind of artist, because you get the entire payoff of being able to be the inheritor of, say, Picasso and Alice Neel.
MJ: It was interesting that you said at your reading the other night, “I don’t care if you think these are poems, you don’t have to.” Because I think I have anxiety, as somebody who really enjoys a lot of traditional lyric-narrative poetry. You know, I love Philip Levine, I love Georg Trakl—I would feel as though I was doing a disservice to myself if I didn’t write poems that I feel to be of these lineages. So I think I’m sort of fixated on this anxiety about being a notebook writer and valuing that as a form to publish and also doing lyric poetry but being dissatisfied with a lot of books that come out as “Poetry.” So I hunger for some way to negotiate that. You know, something like this Marina Tsvetaeva book that Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine did (Dark Elderberry Branch). They called it “A Reading” of Tsvetaeva. It did something similar to Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, where it’s based on translation, and it’s expressing a love for Tsvetaeva’s work and a respect for their enjoyment of it. I’ve read your other poetry too, and maybe we don’t write a very similar poem, but I’m wondering if you relate to this.
WK: Yeah, I totally do. I came of age as a writer in a traditional sense of lyric poetry from the conventional English education. I loved Auden and Robert Lowell, as well as Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. I worshipped Keats, all that business. My first book was in form, syllabics, and later I wrote a book in ottava rima. Every book of poems I’ve published till this new one has wanted to uphold the identity of book of poems. I wanted the poems to look like poems. I haven’t included prose poems in my books of poetry—my poems may be prosaic but they’re in lines. But with this new book, I relaxed that stricture for several reasons. The fact is that I’m more read or known as a prose writer than a poet—a fact I don’t mind. It amuses me because the whole way I orient myself toward factuality and exposition is entirely a poet’s. So it just seems to funny to me if anybody reads me as anything but a poet, but it also gratifies me that people read my prose as if it were really poetic and smooth, when in fact I’m really working my ass off to make it clear as possible, compared to the way I would naturally do it. I’m gratified about the way people read my prose—sometimes younger people particularly—for its experiments with essay form. So when I say with this new book that I don’t care if you think of it as poetry, that’s because I would be really happy if the same people who like my essays but haven’t read my poems like this new book for the same reasons they like my essays and therefore have to get used to the slightly more poem-like aspect and layout of this book. I mean, who’s to say who likes what or if anyone likes anything, but I do feel that if this book, The Pink Trance Notebooks, communicates and seems alive and jumpy and in a state of emergency, that would make me really happy, whether the book is considered errant essay-writing or process-poem.
MJ: So Eileen Myles is one of my favorite poets.
WK: She’s the best.
MJ: She’s someone who says something like this line in Not Me: “There’s an argument for poetry being deep but I am not that argument,” but she’s also someone who says, “Our time needs a shadow.” And she is deep and poignant in her own way. I love how she busts that duality. I hunger for ways to find that space. Sometimes there’s a lot of pleasure in writing lyric poems and doing criticism or essay writing over there, but that separation can also fill me with despair.
WK: Yeah. I’m a worshipper of Hervé Guibert’s books and what they represent, not as a limit of literature but the beginning of a new literature. When people say “what do you find really inspiring? what books of poetry do you find really inspiring?” I always end up wanting to mention Hervé Guibert’s notebooks, even though I know it’s not a poem. It’s very delightful to find the quintessence of one art form buried in another body. Our fellow teacher Richard Howard said a long time ago with his third book, Untitled Subjects, that he wanted to recapture with his methods something of the energy that poetry had given up to narrative fiction and drama. So people from different schools and different moments are energized just like we are energized by the sense that poetry has lost some of its energy and it needs to borrow from adjacent genres. That’s a really exciting thing.
MJ: Allen Ginsberg was one of my original inspirations. You know: Yes, I know how to be a poet now that I’ve read Allen Ginsberg. I hadn’t really read him very closely in a few years and came back to him just last year and rereading Kaddish was like, What this does is amazing! I hope to do something in that vein, of this tug of subconscious material and narrative.
WK: Yes! The thing I love about Ginsberg that I had not understood until the last few years is his technique of compression. It’s easier to acknowledge his flow, his libido, his politics, his transcendental consciousness, his wit, his Jewishness, his mysticism, his Buddhism. But his W.C. Williams-like sense of how to squeeze words together—I was probably, in terms of process, while writing The Pink Trance Notebooks and even while revising, more subconsciously aware of Ginsberg than anyone else. I think he comes up more than a few times in the book, and it’s specifically about his technique of writing in a way that looks like logorrhea, that looks like just a free gush of language but actually has an astonishing tension because of omitted words. I compress, too; and I think that compression (maybe Yiddish-like?) comes from a spliced relationship to English. Not that I have a spliced relationship to English but there is something in the way that Ginsberg does that Williams-Pound thing of cutting unnecessary words that in Ginsberg’s hands seems not only high modernist or objectivist but also seems kind of Jewish and kind of gay, really, though not exclusively. Writing The Pink Trance Notebooks, I rode that Williams-Pound-Ginsberg variety of fag imagism, you could call it. Fag documentary imagism.
MJ: So you would have a certain size notebook?
MJ: About the same size for each notebook?
WK: Sometimes they were really little and sometimes…they were never 8.5 by 11, they were always smaller than that. Sometimes very little, but mostly approximately the size of this book [holds up copy of The Pink Trance Notebooks]. It’s a very standard Moleskine notebook. It’s essentially that notebook, the one you have, and I’d write big because I really like sketching, so there were maybe five words per line. There was always a line-break decision. A lot of times I would say, “Well, this certainly isn’t a poem because I haven’t thought about line breaks.” I would just go for pages. But there’s always a moment of choosing if I’m going to hyphenate, or if I’m going to end on that word. When you’re breaking the line frequently, there are tons of choices, tons of ways to make a decision, and that multiplicity of avenues is fun. Without ever making fussy line breaks in an attempt to be ultra-poetic, I alternated between writing as if just in a prose diary, and enjoying the momentary hiatuses at the end of each line.
MJ: Would I be correct in saying that you would take these little snippets and pull them out of a more narrative context in the original draft and find that they had a charge to them? Or that you would revise them into some fragmentary charge, and then you collaged the many things together. Is that the process?
WK: Yep. Except that the original version wasn’t a narrative; it was a more aleatory and less sequential torrent. I would usually, in fact, save the narrative bits. There was just page after page of stuff in my rough, raw transcript—unpunctuated page after page. Each notebook was approximately thirty typed pages, thin lines but without any stanza breaks. The unedited manuscript was very hard to read. The parts that really stuck out for me were strange word choices, surprising juxtaposition, and fragments of narrative—autobiographical or otherwise. I constructed a book that ends up being a lot more autobiographical and narrative than the original experiment, which was much more nonsense, I won’t call it nonsense, but it had a lot more non-words in it.
MJ: That’s what I was curious about, because it’s a book that seems to have a lot to do with process and the joys of it, maybe in that surrealist way of the process being the point, but then, from what you just said, it’s almost inverted.
WK: Yeah, I guess in my own work I have a somewhat limited ability to get-away-with or limited tolerance for too much surrealism. I love it as a reader and there is a lot of it in my writing that I edit out and I go toward it further in this book than I ever have, but for whatever reason I am a kind of plain-spoken and autobiographical writer, kind of a narrative writer, I guess.
MJ: You’re not a LANGUAGE poet.
WK: No, and I always found myself, whenever there was a part, call it a sexy bit, a sexy or embarrassing bit, I would be interested in that bit, and would usually include anything that seemed connected to sexuality, because it was more riveting. My method of revising had to do with taking a great distance from the page and looking at it tenderly and objectively and seeing if there were any words that reached into the foreground for me as I looked at the page—as if I were in the studio, softly looking at a painting for a while to wait to see emerge the clue about what I’m supposed to do next.
MJ: I thought of Baudelaire, from his journal, “To achieve a daily madness.”
WK: Yes, I love that line. In one of my trance notebooks, I say: “to reach a point / where mania / masquerades as / regular, not unreal.” That’s exactly what I wanted to do, to reach a daily mania, a heightened, almost psychotic feeling of consciousness. Just workaday process.
MJ: Well I don’t need you to explain what trance means, necessarily, especially if there are a lot of people asking you that.
WK: Never a lot.
MJ: But I mean, for instance, last night, somebody in class brought up trance. Our workshop teacher Alan Gilbert mentioned that the poet Brenda Hillman puts herself into a trance every morning before writing. At first, you hear that and think it sounds really interesting but you wonder what it really means. Don’t artists always need a sort of trance? I think of Bob Dylan sitting on the floor with a typewriter surrounded by cut-out pieces of magazines and stuff like that—that that’s also a form of trance.
WK: That’s great. Totally.
MJ: Especially with his sort of music, you know, the mid-60s, amphetamine-subconscious-tickertape imagery he had going on. So what makes the trance pink?
WK: Well first of all, I utterly wish to line up with what you’ve just said about the ubiquity of trance, or its regular occurrence in any kind of artistic process. I’m not claiming to have achieved the higher varieties of trance, I’m just entering at the starter level, a beginner’s, kindergarten trance. Many writers that I know act like they’re much more deliberate and conscious in the way they compose. The reason I often mention Joyce Carol Oates is because she, as an early influence of mine as a fiction writer, is somebody who clearly does believe in trance. The reason you write fiction is to go into a trance. When I say trance, it’s partly as a result of my art practice. I know the difference between the way I am when I paint and the way I often feel when I write nonfiction. There are absolutely empirical differences in bodily state, in kinds of consciousness. I always have had trance proclivities in my writing process, but I felt (before The Pink Trance Notebooks) that I’d gotten away from it, partly through so much nonfiction writing, and partly because, in my last two books of poetry, I troped toward an overelaborate process of revision that involved major excision and perhaps too much fine-tuning of the parts, too much end-stopping of the lines. Everything end-stopped, everything became a matter of juxtaposition rather than flow. So putting trance back meant just wishing to practice (through experiments in my notebook) different things I could do to loosen up, to have more fun, to be more physical, to forget what I’m doing, to lose my voice, to lose my habits, to find a wider range of vocabulary. Each day there’d be a different trick I would try. It wasn’t just writing my diary. It was writing until I reached the point where I didn’t care or even know what words were coming out, and I had certain procedures in play that would prevent me from falling into my regular language patterns. It feels like a trance. It happens in my studio. It happened just now in my studio because I started to see shapes. It’s like a trance. All of a sudden, I’m riveted by a spot on the wall, and I space out. I can go into auto-hypnosis pretty easily, though often I don’t know it’s auto-hypnosis, I usually just think I’m having a nervous breakdown. It often happens when I’m with people. I know how to do something, it’s depersonalization, it’s maybe putting myself into a mild panic attack. So, writing in my trance notebooks, I would get into a state. Sometimes the state was just peeved and angry at myself, but I would make myself write in the midst of the peevishness and find words. So it was like being a young writer again. Just like when I first started writing and I would just type all night, except that this time I had to consecrate a year into remaking my voice by losing it. I enjoyed orienting my experiments around the word “trance.” The first notebook I kept when the adventure began was a pink notebook. When I transcribed a notebook, I’d give it a provisional title, according to its color or specifications, such as Purple Notebook #8, Pink Notebook #24, or Geography Notebook #5, Cardboard Notebook #6. Each section had an adjective describing what kind of notebook it was, and I decided that of all of those, for the book’s overall title, pink was the nicest and it was also the first. And pink also had associations I liked, and because I used blue in the title of my last book of poems, Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background, I thought it was nice to have this new book be pink. And also because I was devoted as a kid to Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. I don’t know if you know those. They were written in the 1890s and early 1900s, and Dover Editions reissued them, and they’re these beautiful editions of Andrew Lang’s retelling of fairy tales, like the Brothers Grimm, with these great illustrations. There’s The Blue Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, The Lilac Fairy Book, The Pink Fairy Book, and I loved them. Those were my favorite books when I was a kid. Also, Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks. I love that book. I’ve always wanted to write a book in that mode. So it wasn’t difficult to pick a color. That’s why Pink.
MJ: So you would have a word bank? For me, there are frustrations with notebook-keeping when I feel very localized, very locked-up in what I’m like on a street corner right now and how fucking miserable that locality can be. I haven’t been pleased by writing prompts that much in the past, and I don’t know if that’s out of my own stubbornness or desire to self-invent rather than being told how to break free, or whatever it is. How exactly would you pivot out of those self-annihilating places?
WK: Or, how would I pivot out of the street corner and what it could offer linguistically. I did feel as if I’d used up my allotment of words. Also, I fell in love with the materials of painting and with colors, all of which were found, all of which were purchased things. I don’t create any of my painting materials. I mean, I guess I find scraps to use as patterns and collage, but the color comes from pencils, markers, paint tubes, and so I became grateful for those givens, and then I would go home to write and realize I have so many more words than I have paint tubes. My vocabulary comes from having read a lot, but also because my grandfather, my mother’s father was an English teacher—and one of the things he did was write dozens of vocabulary-building books, to increase you wordpower. When I was a kid, one of my only connections to my grandfather was his constantly sending me his build-your-wordpower books, so I developed early on a typical SAT vocabulary, for better or worse, and I still have it. Words like “deleterious.” And that’s the way my grandfather talked, this Latinate, florid vocabulary. Desuetude. But I love it. I love Henry James. I like Victorian vocabulary. But so I would go home from painting and say, Wow, I have all these words and there’s a dictionary of all the words in English, so I redeveloped a relationship to language, to vocabulary, as something that I didn’t own but that was a free set of materials. In my trance writing, in my notebook experiments, I discovered how many more words I had in my head than I thought I did, and they would come at me and I would just let myself watch the arrival of the new shipment of words in my head, with a different kind of glee and attitude and less attachment to subject than I used to have. It was never searching for a word; I’d feel joy at the next free shipment that arrived. Sometimes I would have word lists I would cull from, but it was more looking around me and hearing and remembering and just suddenly taking advantage of the mind’s plasticity in relation to word association, with respect to words as objective carriers of cultural information and semantic undertone—connotation, denotation—that I could get for free.
MJ: It’s kind of going language-first into your day?
WK: Yep, totally.
MJ: Into the subway, into class, etc.
WK: Yeah, and it was like being a Language poet, because I’ve always had that affinity with Language poetry, so-called Language poetry’s relation to language as a social texture. I began to feel, in my humble way, as a very local, selfish, limited writer with a very specific purview—you know, there’s no breakthroughs in world consciousness happening in my work by any means—I thought, something that’s happening in this book a little bit, there’s a little bit more history just slightly through accident, at least I felt there was, and I was grateful for that presence as a free thing that occured because I had loosened myself up over the inbox of language, just little bits, and I let them in without scrutinizing.
MJ: It’s interesting, because if I feel like there’s something about confessional narrative that hinders me—and I’m a believer in the confessional narrative, or my version of the confessional narrative, maybe not the one that’s in the boogeyman ads—I think it is maybe being beholden too much to transcending or sublimating experience into art. If that outlet is also sustaining your emotional life, it’s unsustainable to have it being weighed that heavily on both sides. So it’s interesting because this notion of going language-first would be something that’s new for me. Although it’s probably not, really. I’m just hearing it here for the first time by this name.
WK: In college and when I was in the M.A. fiction-writing program at Johns Hopkins, I started writing poems secretly. Just at night I would type up things different from fiction writing, different from diary writing, I would just sort of type up things. Influenced by Frank O’Hara. Typing up things in lines. Suddenly something turned around, about a year after I finished the fiction-writing program, I showed some of these poems to a friend of mine—we were completely high, probably. She might have been making this up but she said, “Oh I like these so much better than your stories.” But rather than feeling insulted, I said, Fuck fiction. Fuck fiction. (Laughs.) I thought, I’m going to this thing, which is to just type. I’m just going to type. And it was so easy because I was a temp at that time, for a living, so I would just do my poem-typing secretly. I would do it on index cards and While You Were Out message pads; I would just type. Just put them in the typewriter in between assignments when nobody was looking, and just type up a few things. So I had all these index cards and I would make little poems out of them. After doing that, and writing and shaping them into poems, for about six months, I got inspired by a book that was essentially Language poetry, by Stephen Rodefer, who died recently, a kind of Language poet. His book, Four Lectures, published by The Figures, totally blew me away. I was starting to get into John Cage, things like that. I started this experiment where I would go to Dunkin’ Donuts or other places with an opera libretto and I would transcribe overheard conversations. I would choose a stanza—tercets, quatrains—and I would take a scene from an opera, like Lucia’s mad scene, and I would transcribe overheard conversations, converting them into stanzas, and then call the poem “Lucia’s Mad Scene.” I published one of them but the problem was I didn’t know how to revise them. I knew they needed to be revised but my rule was the poem had to be eavesdropped. That was a dead end. Then I went in other directions and the Trance Notebooks are closer to that than anything I’ve done since 1982, whatever these were. I used to call these early poems my White Hand Pantry Eavesdropping Poems. I don’t even know if White Hen Pantry exists anymore. It was in Cambridge, it wasn’t Dunkin’ Donuts.
MJ: So it would be the stage direction from the opera?
MJ: And then the transcription in stanzas. . .
WK: In stanzas, with some revision, but very little. I would be sculpting it as I heard it—not to correspond to the scene, I didn’t care at all about the scene.
MJ: The scene of the opera?
WK: Yeah. I liked that the poem had nothing to do with the opera scene, but that the opera scene would give the soliloquies and conversations a context. There was something really groovy about them, but they were not…I mean, if I had any literary community at the time, I could have easily had people who could have shown me what they were like and how I could work with them to bring them forward.
MJ: This was post-grad school?
WK: Post-M.A. from Johns Hopkins in fiction writing, definitely. But it didn’t go anywhere until I started, I guess in my first book of poems, the opening poem is called Scheherazade, what I did for that was there were these three songs by Ravel, a sequence—the first one is called “Asie,” the second one is called “La Flûte enchantée,” the third one is “L’Indifférent,” and so I wrote poems listening to each of those piece, I would produce this mass of material. In my second book of poems, Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offendes, there’s a long poem called “Rhapsody,” which is also a trance-like experiment.
MJ: I find myself obsessing over wanting to return to the original impulse, especially lately being in the MFA program and sort of wondering if I’m better off than I used to be—you know, all these kinds of things when you’re inundated in the literary culture and have anxieties about yourself and remember how free you were at the beginning, how alone, how pleasantly alone.
WK: You said very nicely that we’re always wanting to return to our original impulse. My original impulse: when I discovered that this thing I was doing, which was just putting pieces of paper in a typewriter and typing lines, that I was actually writing poems, but I didn’t know they were poems. I guess it was because I had no notion on earth of how I would ever revise them.
MJ: That revising was somehow the important thing?
WK: Because I knew about revising from fiction. First you would just make the sentences better and firm up the characters and details and create an ending. But the poem, it was a happening on the page of this language-energy and I wished I could improve it but how could I really improve it? I didn’t know what it was about. Since then, I’ve tried to learn about whatever the gesture is of titling something, knowing when the end is, framing it, finding the container for it; that discovery of a container, a reassuring arrival, is how one makes the transfer from seedbed to literature, almost instantly. It’s a matter of confidence to a certain extent and having a canny sense of literary precedent, so that you know how simple the act of transfiguration may be to take a page of just things you’ve typed up and call it a piece. And I’ve learned from artists about how to do trick of instant closure. How quick and decisive that gesture of tilting or reevaluation, folding, needs to be.
MJ: René Char’s Hypnos off of Seagull Books. Have you heard about this?
MJ: You’ve got to get it.
WK: Tell me about it.
MJ: It’s a translation—I don’t know if it’s the first published English translation of it. Hypnos is numbered fragments, no more than a sentence or two apiece, that he wrote during the Resistance effort, and it looks great.
WK: Like Ponge’s Soap or Mute Objects of Expression, it’s a kind of wartime witnessing fugue.
MJ: I love that plunge of dipping into waters and rising out of them and that with Char the war works as the surface.
WK: I think that’s why—to leap from the sublime of René Char’s wartime witnessing to my workaday trance notebooks—why, in terms of choosing which nuggets to keep, when there would be something like “Van Cliburn died yesterday,” I know I haven’t transformed that fact into literature. I haven’t written an elegy for Van Cliburn. But I’m really glad I wrote down “Van Cliburn died yesterday” when it really happened. And maybe that’s the only line worth anything in the whole book. I feel reverence for those little documentary bits, which is why I more or less retained, in the final manuscript, any time I mentioned somebody who died that day. Because that, at least, matters.
MJ: Yeah, because I would go Google what day that was. I would suddenly place you.
WK: Yes, because I never made those up. Or backdated them or said, “Let’s see who died that I could insert.” Never lied. I had a pretty high truth ethic in this book, so that I didn’t feel like I could make up a chronology of events in my life or doctor things like that—I wasn’t interested in camouflage. I wouldn’t do a good enough job.
MJ: It would take a twinge of the integral pleasure out of it.
WK: It would take a different level of commitment to a different narrative construct. Like a novel. Which I have rarely, if ever, had the patience to do. One passage I really feel that’s very true in the Notebooks is when I referred to “our regret” (I’m using the royal “we”)—“our regret / that we are not a / novelist, we are too / lazy to be a novelist, our / standards are at once / too lax and too stringent.”
I also remember that in composing the one-and-a-half novels I’ve published and in the others I’ve written and not published, the trance of fiction writing was really intense. My very first scene of writing was beginning of college and it was writing a story, and my original impulses were of a fiction writer in a trance. And that was really cool. But also really scary in the way that my current trances never are, because I would really feel disembodied, and I would also feel that it was so intense that I could not live and do that again the next day. I had to go back to language as the element, not the story. I would have amnesia about the story and it would seem like a psychotic space to return to.
MJ: In a similar way to the way you would return to the language—working on The Pink Trance Notebooks—rather than to your life.
MJ: Because I’m negotiating which parts of my process are hindering me from finding the most pleasure in my writing.
WK: What are some of the candidates for parts of your process that are hindering you?
MJ: Probably just anxiety, I guess. I think anxiety is an issue in any case with me. This idea of having to attune myself to traumas or losses and trying to mash life into art rather than letting the two braid.
WK: I think the two will only braid anyway, but if you try to do otherwise, just let them braid.
Anxiety is really always an issue. My relation to anxiety and writing is that I kind of think it’s great for writing, but not great for life, and it’s not great ultimately for writing either. Sometimes great for the seedbed, but rarely good for the revision or the bringing work forward into the world, which is what revision is. Anxiety, for me, is often alleviated through writing. Anxiety fuels writing, writing relieves anxiety, at the same time. But then revising and shaping is filled with anxiety that’s mostly counterproductive.
MJ: Also when the revision mind is on the back of the composition mind. What you were saying on Monday night about patience in the process. I think I gave myself less patience in the process than I deserved, last fall.
WK: I like your notion of seedbed a lot, not least because of its allusion to Vito Acconci’s piece “Seedbed.” You don’t know that?
WK: Oh, maybe you’ll stop using the word seedbed. Vito Acconci. Poet. Conceptual artist. Performance artist. Major figure on the scene. He edited, with Bernadette Mayer, a famous magazine in the 1960s. But one of his most notorious pieces is called “Seedbed” and he planted himself under a ramp in the Sonnabend Gallery and masturbated, so that people could walk above him, and his voice was amplified. So it was the artist in the gallery masturbating. This was in 1972. For skeptics, it became a touchstone for artistic “indulgence,” you could call it, or the masturbatory nature of the avant-garde, but also a really important piece to a lot of people, including me. And there was a really nasty review of my book Humiliation that referred to it as the literary equivalent of Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed,” which I thought was so right on, that was so great, but it was meant as an insult. So, seedbed. I know you don’t mean it like that, but I like how in this conversation we’re circling around how to have a seedbed—not in the Acconci sense—how to stay true to it, how to channel it into work that finds a place outside the seedbed. It’s my lifelong question and it’s the subject of the course I taught at Columbia.
MJ: Are you going to teach that notebooks course again?
WK: I’ll probably do it again. I keep on discovering new notebooks that I want to read and teach. And I will always keep notebooks. I’m doing The Pink Trance Notebooks as, ideally, the first volume of a trilogy. I have the seedbed transcribed of volume two, and I’ve started revising it, but it’s still largely undigested as a book, and I’m a little blocked at the moment. It just sits on my desk. It took me months to read the raw transcript, even just to face it. Then, I spent the whole summer going through and choosing parts I like and separating them off with those horizontal lines. So I have 500 or so pages of excerpts. And now what?
MJ: Did you have anxiety about reading a Trance Notebook to a crowd, how to perform that kind of writing?
WK: Not really. At my lounge act performance at The Kitchen, I planned not to read the book at all, but just to play piano. Then I felt it was unkind to my book not to read a section. When I recite excerpts of the book, I sometimes try to highlight connections between the different fragments—when to speed up or pause. I try to generally read on the quick side rather than linger on each fragment as if it were a little gem of a lyric poem, which it’s not. I try to just get through the passages with as cheerful a tone of voice as possible, to remind people that it’s just a notebook, you don’t have to get uptight.
MJ: Listening to it, I experienced a poignancy that was different than when I read it on the page. Not to say it wasn’t poignant on the page, but it started to lock in in this very poem-like way the arrangement and how that insinuated certain subconscious material, maybe. It may have been your skill in reading it, but that was a surprising experience and one I’m glad that I had.
WK: I’m glad you put it that way. I’m gratified by your interpretation. I think the way I revised each notebook was toward the melancholy spirit you intuited. Each notebook is a seven to fourteen-page poem but with a lot of space, so I was aware of each notebook having movements, turns towards narrative, turns away from narrative. I developed a knack for how to shape an individual notebook—how to make it covertly elegiac or, in a light-complicated way, to give a sense of forecast and retrospect to it. I do it unconsciously. It’s the way I revise an essay, too. I revise toward poignancy, because I’m a poignant guy.
MJ: Well it’s like that Guibert review you did. That was incredibly elegiac and poignant.
WK: Thank you. I know it was just supposed to be a book review, but I took it seriously because Guibert is immense.
MJ: That moment, I think it was in the first paragraph, where you wrote, “I regret my omission,” or whatever the word for it was—where you missed enjoying Guibert’s work when he was alive and when it was within the moment of the AIDS crisis. That was such a stunning opening to a review. Especially after falling in love with Guibert myself in your class.
WK: I’m glad. Harold Bloom argued that if you want to be a “strong poet” you need to revise (transume?) a prior poet. I’m not a “strong poet,” but I think that (for any poet) there are templates of poem in our head that we always re-work. And one of these templates for me is Schuyler’s “Dining Out with Doug and Frank” because he says (and it’s the thing I’ve always tried to do), he’s just relating a story of something that happened, and near the end he rhetorically asks, “Why is this poem /so long? And full of death?” In much of what I’ve written, my method is usually just, in a matter of fact tone, to tell all the things that happened in order as if I don’t know that there’s any allegory going on whatsoever. Literally pretend there is no secret significance to anything I’m saying and then let myself, later, be surprised by the fact of why this poem is so full of death. It’s not that revolutionary a tactic but it’s the way I always work. I just start writing and know it’s all going to pile up, all end up full of death. But then it needs to be staged in revision so that the deathward drive becomes a little clearer. So that’s why my book seems poignant.
Wayne Koestenbaum is a poet and cultural critic. His recent books include My 1980s & Other Essays, Humiliation, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, and the poetry collection Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background. He lives in New York City.
Michael Juliani is a poet, editor, and journalist from Pasadena, California. A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is currently an MFA student in poetry at Columbia University. His work has appeared in outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, Truthdig and the Huffington Post, and he is the editor of two books by photographer Harun Mehmedinovic.